'Circle Mirror Transformation' - wicked games with Custom Made Theatre

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday April 5, 2022
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Brenda Cisneros, Alfred Muller, Emily Keyishian, Lauren Dunagan and David Boyll in 'Circle Mirror Transformation'
Brenda Cisneros, Alfred Muller, Emily Keyishian, Lauren Dunagan and David Boyll in 'Circle Mirror Transformation'

Circle Mirror Transformation, now being mounted by the Custom Made Theatre Company, is the third major Bay Area presentation of Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker's work in the past few years—following John at A.C.T. and The Flick at Shotgun Players. It is every bit as oblique, intelligent and goosebumpy as those other love 'em or hate 'em shows (Take that as lure or warning). I'm an inamorato, which made the creepy intimacy of this one all the more engrossing.

An ingenious work of meta-theatrical metastasis, the play is set in a mirror-walled studio at a Vermont community center, where instructor Marty, played with saucer-eyed, granola-fed perfection by Emily Keyishian, is teaching a six-week intro-to-acting workshop to four novices, one of whom happens to be her husband (David Boyll, hitting just the right balance of fawning and fed-up). Such classes being what they are —and arts-inclined Vermonters being who they are— the weekly sessions owe as much to therapy as to Thespis.

Class members' marital strains, identity crises and other personal angsts bleed into the improvs, creativity prompts and trust exercises they participate in. Where Method Acting consists of full emotional identification with a fictional character, the method on display here is about fully disclosing one's neuroses to one's nosey fellow townsfolk.

Through watching them participate in awkward theater games, which will be recognizable to audience members who taken this sort of class, we learn about group members' past break-ups, see them stumble into flirtations and flings with each other, and generally fuse into a pablum-soaked blob of codependent goo.

One of the show's most delicious moments comes in the middle of a recurring exercise in which the group lays on the floor and tries to telepathically communicate while counting to ten, when Lauren (Brenda Cisneros, nailing the full-body eyeroll of adolescent attitude), a high school student and the youngest class member by at least a decade, suddenly gets twitchy, loses her composure and asks "Are we going to be doing any real acting?"

Alfred Muller and Lauren Dunagan in 'Circle Mirror Transformation'  (Source: Jay Yamada)

For game audience members, this provocation opens the floodgates to all sorts of brain-twisting fun: We're invited to think about what it means to watch actors playing non-actors who want to be actors; to consider whether this sort of class serves any legitimate purpose (and whether that purpose is related to theater skills, or just social skills); and to guess what playwright Baker thinks about the people and situations presented in her own play.

It's a particular pleasure to experience this show in the close confines of the 49-seat Phoenix Theater, just off of Union Square (Custom Made was previously in residence at the Sutter Street Theater complex). The audience sits on the perimeter of the classroom/studio set in which scenic and lighting designers Starr Jiang and Weili Shi have tucked away some uncanny effects to punctuate the mind-melds and cognitive cramps experienced by Baker's characters.

The proceedings are all smoothly orchestrated by director Ciera Eis, who helps leave us guessing whether we've just been shown how the sausage gets made or been given a wicked parody of the process.

Circle Mirror Transformation, through April 17. Custom Made Theatre Co. at the Phoenix Theater. 414 Mason Street. Tickets: $20-$45. (415) 798-2682 www.custommade.org

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