What a lark! What a plunge!" thinks Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway as she steps exuberantly into her day, and that's pretty much what I felt walking out of Curious Theatre after Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation. The play is just so sweet, smart, honest and touching, such an absolutely delightful way to spend an evening. It's larkish — in the sense of both joy and prankiness — and absolutely absorbing.
Circle Mirror Transformation takes place in a small-town community center in which four people are participating in an acting workshop run by Marty, who combines a little knowledge of theater with quite a bit of new-agey yearning. The participants are Marty's husband, onetime hippie James; sexy Theresa, who spent time in New York and has a smidgen of acting experience; good-guy carpenter Schultz; and sullen teenager Lauren. Everything you learn about these people, and pretty much the entire plot — more like a simple sequence of events, a quiet, evening-long unfolding — rises from the acting exercises they go through together, though every now and then there's a solitary moment or a fragment of before-class dialogue, usually cut tantalizingly short by the arrival of others.
There's probably no actor in America who hasn't gone through exercises like the ones Marty assigns: people standing singly to relate an incident from their lives, an incident that's later re-told by one of the other participants; literal mirroring of words, sounds and movements; entire conversations between pairs of actors, in which each member of the pair is confined to a single word, such as "Ac-mac" and "goulash." The script points up the absurdity of the process in very funny ways, while still showing its revelatory power; the laughter from the opening-night crowd, largely made up of theater people, was full of surprise and recognition.
The characters slowly come to know each other, feeling their way with the exercises, even as we in the audience come to understand them. Schultz falls for Theresa, Theresa flirts with both available males, the marriage of James and Marty turns out to be less solid than it seems, there's a hint or two about Lauren's murky home life. No major drama, nothing climactic, no big resolutions, no straining for significance. Just moments of insight — partial, elliptical — that glimmer into view and vanish almost before you can take them in, and a conclusion that's pure, quiet magic.
From the spirit-cheering between-scene music to Jacob Welch's lighting to Michael Duran's pitch-perfect set, with its notice board, coat closet and obtrusive white light-switch plate, the production — under the direction of Christopher Leo — is first-rate. But everything hinges on the casting, and this, too, could hardly be better. Meredith Young's Lauren spends most of the time appropriately sunk into herself, and Bob Buckley is a properly befuddled James. Teacher Marty could easily be a stereotype — the middle-aged, small-town, would-be actress — but Erica Sarzin-Borrillo gives her depth; her writhing, raptor-like shriek during the circle transformation exercise alone is reason to see this show. And where in hell has Mark Rubald been all this time, and why isn't every director in town scrambling for his services? No other actor I know can make low-key decency so deeply appealing, and the dynamic between his Schultz and Barbra Andrews's lithe and sharply expressive Theresa is one of the strongest threads in an altogether strong production.