The need to be understood is primal, even if it’s just with one other person. Sadly, being human gets in the way more often than not. We lie, justify, cheat, justify, hurt, and justify some more. Subconsciously, we figure out our “roles” in life and play them out, for good or bad. At the end of the day, though, we must remain the “hero” of our own stories, so we justify more. We get better at playing ourselves than actually being ourselves. Thus is the art of being human. Big Dawg Productions’ latest venture, “Circle Mirror Transformation” by Annie Baker shows us as much is true. The play is framed as a well-paced whirlwind of scenes, taking place over a six-week acting workshop in a small town rec center.
Though a plot is present, how it’s presented fascinates most. The majority of scene runtime consists of a smorgasbord of theatre games. The like of which will have the uninitiated smiling, laughing and hopefully wanting to join in. As for anyone who has spent time in a theatre class, they may find themselves clawing at the walls, hoping Zip, Zap, Zop isn’t next.
We learn who the players are through bookends to the games—small slivers the characters allow to slip out into the world. The interactions shape their connections, and for an audience willing to read between the lines, a world of depth awaits. The audience witnesses five strangers, for better or worse, connecting on a real level. It’s subtle in its approach yet powerful in its look behind the curtain of a hobbyist’s take on acting. Serving as further proof that, while an outlet, theatre is not therapy.
Kat Vernon plays Marty, the teacher of the acting class who becomes something of a den mother to her students. She wants to expose them to the world of theatre, yet it seems more like she is using the class to work out her own past trauma. Vernon is as ever dominating in her role and takes small moments to fill in unseen history. In one instant, through wringing hands and furrowed brow, Vernon quietly owns the stage.
Marty’s roll call is made up of all walks of life. There is her husband James (Alex Wharff); Theresa (Maria-Luisa Winslow); a failed New York actress who has moved to the area; the recently divorced Schultz (Rich Deike); and the 16-year-old peculiar and precocious Lauren (Tyana Rumbeau). Each of the “students” truly embody their roles. With Deike’s Schultz and Winslow’s Theresa, the two bring to stage the hopes of new love and sadness of an infatuation ended. Deike really shines, giving Schultz a gruff brute exterior only matched by his soft-souled interior.
The play easily could pass for a staged documentary with just how mundane the world comes across. From its very recognizable set design to the humanistic portrayal of the human condition. The key word that carries through the production is “natural.” It all feels very day-in-the-life-of, which is a huge credit to the production’s director Kire’ Stenson. She has a clear love for the play, which is needed for the odd way the show dances around its over-arching plot. She approaches it with a strong enough vision, as to craft a solid structure but with a soft enough touch to allot room for the actors themselves to work. Its solid work from a director who proves, when one has done something right, audiences won’t be sure they’ve done anything at all.
The set is great, so world-building good that when audiences walk into the Cape Fear Playhouse, they will undoubtedly be transported to the recreation center. It’s not flamboyantly painted or revolutionary in design, but scenic designers Robin Dale Robertson and Donna Troy have detailed it to such an ample degree that I was genuinely surprised with the theater’s transformation. Having seen it reshaped numerous ways over the years, this one rings with a sense of authenticity. From inspirational posters strewn across the walls, the dance beam mounted, all the way down to the information newsletters hanging on the bulletin board, nothing gets left out.
The production has even managed to hide clever Easter eggs to the director in the set, but no spoilers here in finding them; it is up to you, dear reader. Most impressive is the massive mirror in three sections covering the back wall of the theater. An element which can be a distraction at times, it also allows the audience to see angles normally cut off. As someone who had to clean mirrors in his past, allow me to point out praise for the lack of finger and hand prints usually on them.
The idea of acting is “to live truthfully under the imaginary circumstances”—at least that’s what Sanford Meisner said, and I imagine he had a thought or two on the matter. The cast has a hard job on their hands with this material, their imaginary circumstances are practically everyday life, and it’s easy to forget just how overwhelming everyday life can be. There is nothing showy presented on stage, no grand explosions of raging tempers or passions. Every built moment of tension is cut off or interrupted before it can peak as to not disrupt the “safe space” these five individuals have built.
With how passed-over the drama comes off, one could argue this is a play where nothing happens. To which the correct response comes from paraphrasing fictional writer Robert Mckee: “Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you my friend don’t know crap about life!” This play is one of the best depictions of humanity in all of its uncomfortable glory.
The Wilmington theatre scene in past seasons has had an issue of resembling a television network that continuously aired reruns. As of late, a number of companies have really stepped up to change that channel by bringing something new to us in the Port City. Big Dawg Productions is one company truly leading the charge with this much needed change. Their premiere of “Circle Mirror Transformation” to our stages truly shows why they have been a force for the past 24 years.