A s a newcomer to Alaska, I'm learning to let go of formalities. I wore jeans to the Oct. 10 Sunday evening production of Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation" at Perseverance Theatre and I fit in. In Baker's deceptively simple story, the audience is invited into the lives of five people in an acting class. Each character is learning to let go in order to fit in. Each makes unique discoveries.
The five-person ensemble, guided carefully by director Brandon Demery, erases the fourth wall immediately. Moments after the house lights dim, it doesn't feel like a play. Instead, it's as if we are peeking into the lives of regular folks, an experience not unlike watching scenes in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," except the time is now and the place is a small town's community center. As the characters play at acting and act like they are playing, we are transformed. We can't see into the mirror on stage, but we don't need it, because the characters before us successfully mirror our awkwardness, loneliness, complexity, and fragility - our humanity.
Good actors are usually really bad at pretending to be people learning how to act. They try too hard. We see them trying and a play never happens because there is no one to care about. The five performers on the Perseverance stage are not just good. They are really good. MK MacNaughton, in earthy cottons, sassy florals, and waist-length necklaces, plays the acting instructor with flair - not too dramatic, just a tad irritating. John Wilson's portrayal of the drama teacher's husband in his Hawaiian shirts, khaki shorts and boat shoes is understated, believable and honest. James Sullivan's puppy-dog eyes, facial expressions and posture telegraph the story of heart-broken Schultz so clearly words are almost unnecessary. Schultz woos Theresa, a character hung up on her abusive boyfriend. Dawn Kolden expertly offers up the many dimensions of Theresa with her electrifying eyebrows, cupid lips and dancer's body. Youngest in the acting class is Lauren, a high-school student with dreams of playing Maria in "West Side Story." Katrina Hotch captures the socially awkward, shy character with her head down, back to the group, yet her wild mismatched socks announce her character's inner desire to be noticed.
We get to know each character through the actors' performance, but also through Baker's brilliant script that slowly reveals layers of the lives of the five people. The scenes are short, just like the conversations overheard in the checkout line at Fred Meyer. The characters play traditional theater games - explosion tag, storytelling one word at a time, gibberish - but audience members who have never played theater games will not be left out. It's not the action that matters, but the inner stories on display. If you've taken an acting class and once upon a time portrayed a bed or a tree, there's an added satisfaction, but anyone who has taken a risk can identify with the five people on stage trying to open up. It's hard.
The tempo of the play, even with the realistic and painful pauses, is quick and almost fleeting, just like life. When a one-minute scene ends, lights dim, but we are not taken out of the story with a scene change, because there isn't one. We are left wondering about the pain or the hope or the worry hanging over the people on the stage. Costume changes do not delay the story because they are wisely woven into a scene change or an on-stage moment.
Attention to detail is also evidenced in the set. Of course, the broom, the trashcan, and the really ugly plastic cart have the initials of the center stenciled on them. The community center bulletin board outside the classroom is littered with notices. And the curtains covering the mirror are crooked. For reality's sake, the room needs more dirt, more litter and more examples of leftovers from previous users. Perhaps it is for the sake of reality that many important moments seem to be done in a stationary profile, cutting off our access to emotional journeys of the characters. We don't always get all the clues in real life either.
The third performance of this month-long run was spot-on delightful. Audience members did not exit immediately after the Sunday evening performance and it wasn't because of the sheets of rain coming down outside the lobby doors. The story lingers in your mind. No one was sharing the character Lauren's lament, "I don't get it. I don't get what the point is." Memories of acting class experiences, relationships gone wrong or right and the struggle to find a place in a new group were bubbling up in conversations, as were questions about the characters. It was as if we didn't really want to see the actors appear in regular clothes, because we needed time to sort out their characters' stories and our predictions for their futures. "Circle Mirror Transformation" has many points, depending on where you enter the story, how deeply you let go, and how badly you want to fit in.
Shows continue Thursdays through Sundays through the month of October.