Even if you've never taken a drama or improv class, you've likely encountered similar ice-breaker games and team-building exercises, maybe at a school event or work retreat. Love them or passionately dread them, these exercises, in all their cringeworthy glory -- as well as their potential to foster bonding and communication -- are on display in Los Altos Stage Company's latest production.
Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation" takes place entirely within the confines of a community multipurpose room in a small Vermont town, where James (Damian Vega), Theresa (Kristin Brownstone), Schultz (Gary Landis, the company's executive director) and Lauren (Brittany Pisoni) gather each week for their "adult creative drama" class, taught by dynamic Marty (Judith Miller).
In Baker's cleverly constructed play, the audience mainly sees and gets to know these characters through their ongoing theater exercises, with only the short breaks mid-class in which to catch further glimpses of their lives in the larger world. As they perform monologues as one another, act out scenes using only one-word phrases, mirror nonsense sounds and motions, tell "anonymous" secrets and reconstruct moments from their lives, their growing connections (or disconnections, as the case may be), are slowly, beautifully revealed. In other words, drama class reflects the overarching drama of life.
Vivacious Marty and charming James are married and at first seem to be the perfect successful, loving, semi-Bohemian couple; a shining example to all. But as the play goes on, fissures in their relationship grow apparent. Theresa's a trainee massage therapist who's recently moved back to New England after a stint trying to make it as an actress in New York and fleeing an unhealthy relationship. Schultz is a sad and lonely furniture-making divorcee who too-quickly develops feelings for Theresa. And 16-year-old Lauren is a stereotypically sullen teen who wonders whether the class will ever do any actual acting. She, we eventually learn, is having family trouble and dreams of starring in her school's production of "West Side Story" and becoming a veterinarian. In short, these are normal people with realistic issues, and their realism contrasts nicely with the fact that their reason for being together is, ostensibly, to engage in make believe.
The set (by Andrew Breithaupt) and props (by Ruth Stein) are outstanding. Anyone who's ever spent any time in any sort of community space will find the scenic design accurate, charming and very familiar, from the preschooler crafts on a bulletin board (which helpfully indicate a change in season, switching from pumpkins to handprint turkeys to Christmas and Hannukah decor) to the dance-studio mirrors and the big, blue yoga ball (which earned its own photo and bio in the program). And the costume design (by Amy Conners), too, is so simple yet so effective. The clothes could easily come from the actors' own wardrobes but serve to represent their characters very well, such as sweet, schlubby Schultz's plaid shirts and Theresa's pseudo-hippie yoga duds, with subtle changes (an added scarf; a puffier coat) demonstrating that autumn has shifted into winter.
Directed by Virginia Drake and in accordance with Baker's stage directions, the cast maintains the realistic vibe by allowing plenty of awkward pauses, moments of silence and even an occasionally empty stage, just as one would expect from a real group of newly acquainted, nervous classmates. The actors all deliver fine, natural performances and the show blends nicely its plentiful comedic moments, such as its characters trying and failing to embody inanimate objects, with its poignant ones. The only time it starts to feel slightly hokey or overwrought is when the characters deliver their revealing monologues. It all quietly builds to a satisfying, lovely and bittersweet conclusion (and presented with no intermission, it's short and sweet).
"Circle Mirror Transformation" is a low-key, small-scale story, lacking in big musical numbers, special effects or climactic moments. Instead, it's a very rewarding glimpse into a few weeks of some regular people searching for something to take them out of their normal lives and finding that it's all connected after all.
What: "Circle Mirror Transformation"
Where: Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos
When: Through Dec. 11, Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m.
Info: Go to Los Altos Stage Company.