Pahl's Pen

Thoughts about Janus Theatre’s Circle Mirror Transformation

By Richard Pahl

As the lights come up, five actors are revealed in various states of repose on the stage floor. They begin to randomly call out numbers in sequence. When two of them speak simultaneously, they have to start over again.

That is the low key opening to a play about play. “Circle Mirror Transformation” is a unique comedy about four acting students who would normally never have met and their fearless leader. They opt to take a six-week drama class which sends them down unexpected paths. Initially uncomfortable and awkward, the classmates undertake a series of theatre games designed to teach them about movement and action, motivation and intention, awareness and attentiveness, listening and remembering, language and silence.  These exercises often go hilariously wrong.

Group storytelling, word association, good old-fashioned tag. As they get to know one another, the action builds and intensifies. As they loosen up and start to have fun, so does the audience. As they navigate the forced intimacy of their acting class, the audience witnesses their breakthroughs, embarrassed admissions and brief moments of real connection.

Each student directs the others in acting out a scene from his or her childhood. Each tells a story about a memorable experience; later a different student repeats the story as he/she remembers it. In the most telling exercise each takes on the persona of another classmate and shares everything they know about him/her. In the end these unexpected friendships greatly impact their lives. They experience hurt and healing, jealousy and generosity. “Circle Mirror Transformation” provides an enthralling evening at the theatre.

Experienced directors will tell you that 95% of directing is casting.  Here Director Marge Uhlarik-Boller demonstrates her genius for casting. Each of the players is believable and identifiable—Annie Slivinski as the encouraging teacher, Paul Anderson as a father whose daughter isn't speaking to him, Julie Bayer as a New York actor recently relocated to this small town in Vermont, Justin Schaller as a newly divorced and socially inept carpenter, and Abby Anderson as a shy high school student eager to do some “real acting.” Each undergoes a vivid transformation during the course of the play.  Uhlarik-Boller gives shape to a play full of silence and miscommunication and provides her audience with a clear emotional journey.

 Annie Baker's “Circle Mirror Transformation” was developed at the Sundance Institute and the New York Theatre Workshop and premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2008. It received an Obie Award for Best New American Play and a Drama Desk nomination for Best New American Play. The award-winning playwright  subsequently received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “The Flick.” “Circle Mirror Transformation” is the second installment in Janus Theatre Company's ambitious Margo Jones Theater Project and continues through November 4.

Richard Pahl is an actor, director, and writer, who has worked in professional, community, and college theater for close to 40 years. He has traveled the country plying his trade at various regional theaters. He was the creator of both Playwrights' Advocate and Page To Stage - incubators for new play production, where local and regional plays were commissioned and simply staged in front of live audiences, providing critical feedback for the playwrights. Pahl also served proudly on the Elgin Cultural Arts Commission from 2007-2014.