Fresno’s ViSTA Theater is a little-known fledgling company connected to the Fresno Music Academy. Owner-operators John Alden and Debi Ruud have enlisted local theater veteran Kate McKnight to spearhead their theatrical endeavors in the small, black-box space next to the music school.
In so many ways, Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker is designed for such a space. The setting of the play takes place in a community center where various classes are given, and the action unfolds over the course of six-weeks of “creative drama” classes. And as an exercise in drama itself, the production succeeds in an engaging, nuanced story about real, everyday life.
McKnight’s use of space in ViSTA is exactly as it should be. Rather than placing the action on the stage at the end of the room, she has cleared space in the center with chairs on each end, which is how such a class would be conducted in real life. Logan Wippern’s lighting design also makes use of the minimal elements of the space, using overhead fluorescent lights for the glare of the community room, but low level blue lighting for transitions. The actors utilize chairs as needed, walk around with mundane props, and use the space in an aggressively un-stage-like manner. People sit where they want. They stand awkwardly. They cross in a haphazard style. All of which is probably highly choreographed. As odd as it seems, few actors can achieve this level of naturalism without some tough rehearsals!
The “creative drama” part of the description is integral for understanding the play. Unlike straight acting classes where students read from prepared scripts and practice speaking dialogue or creating action in a scene, creative drama classes take a decidedly more esoteric approach. They use a variety of games or exercises intended to help the student get in touch with their creative instinct, their emotional accessibility, and to learn how to stay present in the moment.
The thrust of the play is what happens when you put five non-actors (well, mostly) in a room and ask them to get in touch with who they are as people and to open up to one another. And the audience is asked to look on, almost as though they are eavesdroppers in the corner of the room.
The acting exercises the class goes through are immediately recognizable to many theater folks who have had to suffer the whims of a director who just returned from a four-week intensive training with Shakespeare and Company (Yes, I’m talking about myself here. Shout out to the casts of WSF’s Richard III 2009 and Merchant of Venice 2010!). The “milling and seething” exercise near the top of the play received an immediate guffaw of recognition from me.
Some exercises are more useful than others in rehearsals, but they all have one, single common effectiveness: bonding people in a commonly shared awkwardness and sense of vulnerability.
It is in this aspect of the play that McKnight and her cast really take advantage. Baker’s dialogue is extremely naturalistic, including all of the repetitions, searching for words, awkward pauses and dropped phrases that are contained in everyday speech. It is deceptively heavy-lifting for actors to learn, but the result is a shy, vulnerable and very engaging unfolding of lives within a single room.
The entire cast has mastered the style of Baker’s dialogue extremely well. It is the halting cadences of people who are searching for their words and struggling to say what they need to say – without alienating everyone in the room or giving too much of themselves away. There is meaning in every lost word, in every dropped phrase. We learn as much about the characters from what they cannot say as from what they can.
Aletha McFerrin Lane as Marty, the drama teacher, has a brittleness underneath her character’s woo-woo drama techniques that adds a fragility to her holistic approach. Ciara Montana as Lauren, the shy teen with dreams of playing Maria in West Side Story, has a reticence and a slouch that is oddly appealing. Her non-verbal acting speaks far louder than her character’s tenuous voice.
The rest of the cast, including Jay Parks as Schulz, Rachel Hibler as Theresa, and Michael Harrison as Marty’s husband James, also do high-level work and have excellent moments in scenes working with partners. The connections among the cast were solid.
Rest assured that Circle Mirror Transformation is for more than people familiar with the oddities of a rehearsal room or drama class. Much of this play is recognizable to anyone who has been in a book club, a Bible study, a social dance class . . . anywhere folks with different experiences and ideas come together to learn from each other, communicate (sometimes badly and awkwardly), and try to find a sense of connection.
We struggle with connection as human beings, but sometimes there are shining moments that bind us. Even if it seems like we’re doing something pointless, we’re doing it together.
And that is precisely the point.
CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION – one more weekend remaining
June 15 at 7:30 p.m.
June 16 at 2 p.m and 7:30 p.m.
June 17 at 2 p.m.
ViSTA Theater – 1296 N Wishon Ave, Fresno, CA 93728
$20 general; $15 students/seniors – Seating limited to approximately 40.