‘Ya gotta have a gimmick, and here it’s an “acting class” intended train people to use themselves and the sum of their experiences to create an authentic self and interact effectively with others. Guided improvisations are led by the enthusiastic Marty (Lynne Wintersteller) for her students  Theresa (Kate Middleton), James (John Ottavino), Lauren (Charlotte Mae Jusino), and Schultz (Danny McCarthy). Each comes to the class for a different reason and has some kind of troubled backstory. The action takes place in a community center in the town of Shirley, Vermont, where the arty Marty is director and teacher of, in her husband’s (who happens to be James) words, “a whole buncha classes.”


This is an intriguing premise, and often it works well. Things go off the rails when Marty’s spur- of-the-moment decision to play a sort of “Truth or Dare” reveals the darkness that lies beneath the surfaces of the participants, all of whom are profoundly sad in various ways. During this exercise is where the play strains credulity. One character does something so outrageously passive-aggressive and hurtful that I just couldn’t accept it. It’s not entirely unmotivated or even unwarranted, perhaps, and it creates drama—all that’s good—but it doesn’t ring true.


And truth is what Marty is all about—telling it, sharing it, owning it. The title refers to the technique of mirroring others, and since the set is a dance studio, one entire wall is a mirror. Each participant is expected to reflect the others to the extent that they literally tell each other’s stories using personal pronouns, which James kicks off by speaking as Marty: “I’m Marty, I’m 55 years old,” etc. This leads to some interesting moments throughout, as the students filter each other through their own observations and perceptions.


The group members differ in age, background and experience. James is probably in his late 50s, and teaches economics. He is estranged from his 23-year-old daughter from his first marriage, but she gets along well with Marty. This second marriage seems successful. Lauren is a 16-year-old aspiring actress who is a tough nut to crack in the beginning. She expresses disappointment that this is not a “real” acting class with “plays and stuff.” Theresa, 35, has come to Vermont from New York after a failed attempt at acting and a broken relationship, and Schultz, 42, is a recently divorced carpenter. He considers himself something of an artist, and he designs chairs.


Through various means, we get to know these people and care about them. I enjoyed the play a lot until the last 15 minutes or so, and I think it’s an interesting companion piece to God of Carnage (whose four actors attended the Sunday evening Studio performance, by the way) because both situations thrust people who wouldn’t normally be interacting with each other at all into situations in which their inner demons are confronted.


As always, the Rep has done everything right with regard to set (Jack Magaw), lights (Mark Wilson), and sound (Rusty Wandall). I continue to be amazed at the versatility of that space. Costumes (Jack Dunbar) are especially clever because we see these people over six weeks, and they do change clothes, but the changes are minimal and economical, so the blackouts don’t last too long. Stage manager Champe Leary runs a tight set. It isn’t often that cues are as crucial as they are here, and this production is flawlessly timed and orchestrated. Mostly, Circle Mirror Transformation is an amusing yet thoughtful way to spend an evening.


NOTE: The program contains a breathlessly enthusiastic description of the techniques demonstrated here. I know it’s unusual to critique an introductory essay, but the background it provides for the uninitiated is a part of the whole experience, and the remarks I read on Circle Mirror Transformation do not apply to the play I saw. I believe they are misleading if one is using that author’s insights to help understand the piece.

Circle Mirror Transformation runs through Nov. 13, 2011. You may contact www.repstl.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 St. Louis.