Small cast, gigantic emotional impact
Pitch darkness is suddenly interrupted by fluorescent lights, illuminating five people lying on the floor. This is the opening of the Theatre Arts department’s “Circle Mirror Transformation,” a play outlining the relationships of five people as they take an adult drama class together at the Shirley, Vermont, Community Center. The set felt very natural in its asymmetry and the costumes were incredibly detailed — every shoe and t-shirt was reflective of the character wearing it. While captioning live theater is difficult, this production seemingly did it with ease. The dimly projected captions on either side of the stage never distract from the show for those who don’t need it, and are incredibly accurate and well-timed for those who do. The production quality overall is incredible, as expected from a department show.
This piece attempts to slowly unfold characters and their forming relationships with one other instead of following an intricate plot. The drama class has a clear structure: Each character plays another character at some point, telling a brief overview of their life story. James, played by Zack Garrity ’20, is the first to take on this task. Dressed in denim from head to toe, he introduces himself as his wife, Marty (Emily Pollack ’21), the teacher of the drama class. From this, we learn a lot about Marty’s background and the context of this acting class, but we also learn so much about James.
Garrity convincingly plays this Canadian Tuxedo-wearing dad type, rambling for just a bit too long. He carefully looks for his wife’s approval as she instructs him to skip certain aspects of her story. One by one, each character eventually tells another character’s story. The beginning of the play balances the right amount of awkwardness and tension, making the characters feel real as we’re slowly introduced to these five unlikely friends.
Haia Bchiri ’20 is perfectly cast as Theresa, an overeager actress who recently left the cold, uncaring acting scene of New York City and her emotionally manipulative boyfriend. She confidently comes into class and quickly flirts with divorcée Schultz (Peirce Robinson ’22), who has yet to take off his wedding ring. She cuts off their short-lived romance, still traumatized from her ex-boyfriend’s abusive behavior. This trauma and anger eventually plays out in one of the class’s exercises. As the students direct the story of a relationship from their own life using the other class members, Theresa starts off by casting James as her ex-lover and Lauren (Noa Laden ’20) as herself. However, she cannot watch it, and pushes Lauren out of the scene. The powerful performance by Bchiri cuts deep and gives a victim of emotional abuse an opportunity to speak for herself, handling this difficult material in an empowering manner. Bchiri gives this fairly unlikable character such vulnerability, depth and power that Theresa becomes lovable.
The relationship between James and Marty slowly crumbles throughout the show, as James falls in love with Theresa. Garrity is stoic until a scene with Marty shows his character’s anger and the anger in their relationship. Marty is the most typical drama teacher, down to the Birkenstocks and shawl. She coaxes each student out of their shell, coaching them to do something that challenges them. Pollack has such a consistent and clear vision for Marty that she feels incredibly real to the audience, like seeing a close friend. The relationship between these two actors was layered and expressive, allowing them to play off of each other beautifully.
Robinson is the ideal fit for the role of Schultz. He makes the immensely awkward, 38-year-old carpenter quite relatable and charming. Schultz clearly yearns for affection and love after his divorce and has the best intentions, but is unsure how to communicate them. When he learns that the teacher, Marty, fell out of bed one night, he immediately tries to help because his ex-wife had had night terrors. He tells her about the condition and that there is treatment. On the last day of class, he even brings Marty a dreamcatcher to help possibly get rid of her night terrors. While he is caring and kind, he accidentally says all the wrong things and asks difficult questions, such as callously asking if she was abused as a child. Robinson skillfully executed this role, balancing creepy and caring to make Schultz such a well-rounded character.
The timid 16-year-old Lauren is the most transformative character, thanks to Laden’s stunning performance. Lauren is by far the youngest participant in the class and struggles to speak up for most of the course. Laden is able to make every moment of her character’s silence so meaningful that Lauren’s personality is clear from the beginning. The audience gets the opportunity to see Lauren blossom as a person through the acting exercises, and Laden makes the audience care about her character’s growth. Like her castmates, Laden could not have been better suited for the role she is in and brought a profound gravity to her scenes. Something about the power in her nervous stammerings, shoulder shrugs and silences makes her a favorite. Her transformation from a painfully timid young student to an interesting young woman is powerful not just for herself or her classmates, but also for the audience lucky enough to witness it.