SMC theater's "Circle Mirror Transformation" is an exhausting ordeal

The experience of sitting through "Circle Mirror Transformation," the newest production by SMC's theater department, is the equivalent of being at a bar with a loud drunk and you're not drinking, or enduring listening to a person who can talk, loudly, for hours on end without a break. Yet drunks and loud mouths can also have interesting things to say and indeed, this is a play with some engaging moments that find themselves plowed under by the craziness.

Friday night's opening performance began nine minutes late in the intimate Studio Stage which is suitable for quieter affairs than the in-your-face bombast of this journey through vapid acting psychology.

The play tells the story of an experimental, week-long acting class led by instructor Marty (Sarah Long) involving her husband James (Nicolas Lozano), 16-year-old rambunctious Lauren (Lara Wallace), the class wench Theresa (Olivia Worthen) and Schultz (Zeno Robinson), who becomes attracted to Theresa.

The play consists of a series of wacky "acting exercises" during which Marty makes everyone play strange tag games, act out scenarios, and perform improv monologues where they pretend to be someone else in the group. As the exercises continue jealousy creeps in and frustrations start to grow.

"Circle Mirror Transformation" is a play that works best when it quiets down and focuses on its hidden rages as opposed to wild explosions. The version performed on Friday was the most interesting during the sections that dealt with having feelings for someone within an intense group environment.

It is quite hellish to have feelings for someone within the swirl and madness of a working environment. The best moments were between Schultz and Theresa as they flirt, get closer to each other but then have to deal with being made to express very personal thoughts and secrets in the acting classes. When she develops a quirky attraction with James there is tension there the production never took full advantage of.

The way "Circle Mirror Transformation" is being staged at SMC buries the play's emotional power under a swirl of manic acting that makes the work appear more silly than deep. And not just silly, the style of the performances were so uncontrolled that ears must have popped every time Long shouted like a banshee, or when Worthen, the best performer of the troupe, screamed or laughed like an asylum patient on the loose.

The confined atmosphere of the stage eventually made the style of the performances feel exhausting to sit through. It was as if the director had decided to evoke Artaud's theater of cruelty without involving the audience. The acting fluctuated between smart and manic. Robinson was capable of delivering tense, penetrating scenes with Worthen where he could express real jealousy and anguish, but then a simple greeting would be acted with such over-done facial expressions and hand mannerisms that they felt like "acting" as opposed to a real performance.

One of the standout performances was Wallace as Lauren. In pig tails and a green sweater, equipped with a backpack carrying her headphones and a cucumber for lunch, she did an excellent job conjuring up a frustrated teenager who wants a real class, and is instead stuck in a circus run by the crashing marriage of James and Marty. She could express sheer maleficence with her eyes and a wicked grin. When she erupted it would make sense; it was in fine tune with her adolescent character.

Worthen's Theresa also had sly moments where she brought to life that clueless tease every office or group has to have.

Alas, "Circle Mirror Transformation" ended as a performance with highlights but an obnoxious whole. At nearly two hours it felt much too long, especially for what it was offering as material. Shakespeare, Lorca, Brecht are names worthy of such a long running time, but not Baker. In the show's program director Adrianne Harrop mentions that she does not approve of the teaching techniques used in the play's world. It would be wise to keep that as policy.