Wednesday, November 6, 2013


Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation was a sensation during and after its run at Playwrights Horizon in 2009, called "the kind of unheralded gem that sends people into the streets babbling and bright-eyed with the desire to spread the word" as well as "absorbing, unblinking and sharply funny" by the New York Times.

Baker sketches out her characters, opening them like flowers, through the device of six weeks of "adult drama" classes at a small community center in Vermont. We only see these five people -- teacher Marty; her seemingly good-natured husband James; Theresa the "real" actress from New York; recently divorced Schultz, a carpenter who is somewhat inept socially; and Lauren, a high-school student who just may be wiser than the adults around her -- only in the studio where they take their class, in conversation here and there, and in the exercises they take on under Marty's direction. Baker's dialogue often sounds fragmented and broken, just like real people talk, often unassuming, as if nothing much is really being said. But there's a lot there if you listen carefully and let Baker's unique rhythms and tone weave their spell, a lot about how difficult it is to bridge the gaps between and among people, how inevitable it is to change, how complicated it is to be flawed and vulnerable and yet to keep trying to connect, anyway.

Theresa (Cristen Monson, top) reveals secrets to fellow acting students
What's beautiful about the script is how all of that unfolds right before your eyes in small moments. Some of those moments are funny, some are awkward (Baker loves awkward) and some are heartbreaking. If you let yourself fall into the play, you'll find it packs quite an emotional punch by the end.

For Heartland Theatre, Cyndee Brown directs this award-winning play, one that was chosen for the 2010 Best Plays Yearbook and hit the top of the lists of the most-produced plays in America in 2010. Brown is herself a theatre educator, so she understands what it is to see students transformed and enlightened by the "theatre games" they play. Brown's cast includes Cathy Sutliff, most recently seen at Heartland as a no-nonsense police officer in Superior Donuts, as Marty; Dean Brown, who played artist Mark Rothko in Red as James; Cristen Monson, fresh off the role of Desiree in Prairie Fire's A Little Night Music, as Theresa; Aaron J. Thomas, seen in two of Heartland's 10-Minute Plays last summer, as Schultz; and ISU student Julia Besch, who appeared in J.B. in Westhoff Theatre, as Lauren. It's a strong cast, with strong and sure direction, in a play that very much suits Heartland Theatre, which is itself located inside a community center.

There are a lot of entertainment options this week, with a big musical, two of the best plays of the 90s (and maybe the 20th century) and a nationally known humorist on stage, but it would be a major mistake for theatre lovers to overlook Annie Baker's "lovely, luminous" Circle Mirror Transformation at Heartland. This is a play you have to make room for.

For more information on the Heartland production, click here, or you may choose to proceed directly to showtimes or reservation info.

Circle Mirror Transformation opens with a Pay-What-You-Can Preview tomorrow at 7:30 pm, followed by 7:30 performances on November 8-9, 14-16 and 21-23, with Sunday matinees at 2 pm on the 17th and 24th. Note that an after-play discussion will be offered on November 17, with director Cyndee Brown giving the backstage scoop on the show as well as taking questions.

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