Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Circle Mirror Transformation
Novato Theater Company
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's recent reviews of Gala, Moulin Rouge! The Musical and This Much I Know

Heather Shepardson, Ray Martin, Sabina Beachdell,
and Shayla Lawler

Photo by Jere Torkleson
I first saw Circle Mirror Transformation at Playwrights Horizons in New York, then again this spring in a production by The Custom Made Theatre Co. After my third viewing of the play, this week at Novato Theater Company, I can say with some surety that the play is not my cup of tea. Nor was it the cup of tea of several of my fellow audience members at the lightly attended matinee I saw. Several seemed to fall asleep, I overheard one woman say to her companion "not for me," a few patrons left at intermission, and yet another woman snarled "do they give refunds?" as she left the theater.

Despite my personal taste about playwright Annie Baker's work (I find her stuff overly languid and lacking in narrative) and those reactions of some in the audience, the production NTC has created is excellent. Do I wish they'd chosen another play, something with a bit more plot, with something real at stake? Yes. Do I wish they'd found another director or a different cast? No. An emphatic no. For director Jesse Lumb and his five-member cast have done wonderful work here.

Circle Mirror Transformation takes place in the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont, where Baker has also set two of her other plays: The Aliens and Body Awareness. In the Shirley Community Center, Marty (Heather Shepardson) is leading a six-week beginning acting class for four people: Schultz (Rob Garcia), a recently-divorced carpenter; Lauren (Shayla Lawler), a 16-year-old hoping to land the role of Maria in her high school's upcoming production of West Side Story; Theresa (Sabina Beachdell), who has moved to Vermont after washing out as an actress in New York; and James (Ray Martin), Marty's husband.

Together, this quintet spend most of their time doing a variety of theatre exercises: techniques designed to help actors let go of their superegos and inhabit emotions, express themselves non-verbally, and become more in tune with fellow performers. They try to count to 10 as a group, with each person having to intuit when someone else might speak a number. If two people say the same number at about the same time, the group must start over. They stand in a circle and try to make a story with each person contributing one word at a time. They have conversations where the dialogue consists entirely of the words "ak-mak" and "goulash," yet somehow you get the sense of a real conversation.

That these games, which seem almost childish on their surface, actually reveal something about the characters on stage is thanks to uniformly excellent work from the cast. They are all ultimately believable as students in a class such as this. Director Lumb has managed to guide each of them to a space in which they truly inhabit the characters they are playing. As poor, lonely Schultz, Rob Garcia manages a range of expressions, yet they all have something in common: a sense that Schultz is fully expecting, at each moment, that something horrible or horrifying is about to happen. Even when he's smiling, or flirting with Theresa, his face seems to say "this isn't going to end well."

For her part, Beachdell's Theresa walks with a confidence that lets us know she's been in these situations before–not merely the acting games that she would have known from workshops in New York, but the flirtations and a creeping sense of futility. After all, it's clear none of these people are going on to careers in Hollywood or on Broadway.

As the married couple James and Marty, Ray Martin and Heather Shepardson have a lovely chemistry. Shepardson runs the class with just the slightest air of officiousness. She knows she's not Stella Adler, but by gum she's going to run her little acting class with as much professionalism as she can. Martin is a terrific foil for Shepardson, presenting his character as a man who's willing to open himself up to new experiences, yet not quite blissfully unaware that dropping one's defenses can end with a sock in the jaw. Emotionally, at least.

Shayla Lawler, although somewhat removed from teenager-dom, still manages to convince us she is an angsty 16-year-old with challenges of her own that the adults around her would just never understand. With her downcast eyes and sideways glances at the others (just to make sure she's not unwittingly screwing something up), Lawler gives us an insightful portrait of a young woman trying to become herself by becoming other people.

In addition to a terrific cast and expert direction, this production also benefits from a wonderful set by Mark Clark. With its 1970s-era pastel paint patterns and array of flyers touting other activities at the center, it's absolutely perfect for its purpose.

I may be an outlier in my lukewarm reactions to Annie Baker's plays–she's won Obies, Drama Desk Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize, after all–but your mileage may vary. Who knows–this production may turn you into a fan.

Circle Mirror Transformation runs through October 2, 2022, at the Novato Theater Company, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato CA. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. There will be an ASL interpreted performance on September 18. Tickets are $27 general and $15 for those under 18. For tickets and information, please visit or call 415-883-4498.