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Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht.
The Circle Mirror Transformation is one of those plays that is very deceptive.  Until the intermission, you wonder where it is all going because it appears to be nothing but a series of funny moments in an adult drama class taking place in a Community Centre in Shirley (Vermont) where five adults have come for different reasons. The exercises and games which are supposed to be related to a form of theatrical training that acts upon the mind by first acting on the body- a psychophysiological approach according to Richard Schechner – can be amusing, or boring, or silly or whatever you want to think, depending on your relationship with the material.  Of course it is a parody of those counter culture encounter groups that became so important in the 1960s and 70s.  It takes us back to the “communitas” of the peace and love era where the characters here are caricatures of those for whom theatre is a pretext, because individual therapy is the real motive behind all these gyrations, these exercises, these touchy feeling encounters that came out of the anti-psychiatry movement of the hippy period. “When are we going to do some real acting?”  yells the  sullen young Lauren  ( Catherine Rainville) who never really gets into the spirit of the class as it unfolds in a series of short sketches  separated by Marc Désormeaux playful but disquieting music, and by quick blackouts, or interrupted by the arrival of various class members during  delicate moments of intense conversation.

Circle Mirror Transformation

Circle Mirror Transformation - Sarah McVie, John Koensgen, Andy Massingham and Mary Ellis. Photo by Barbara Gray

It  all appears a bit  fluffy,  anachronistic and even  empty except for the fact that one still detects  a sense of pathos underlying each of these characters who reveal themselves and their own private anxieties as that first act  progresses. Thus, it is clear that something else more substantial has to come out of this playfully free movement that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. And then it happens!

After the intermission the tone changes, the “transformation” takes place;  the emotions are heightened, the  drama students who obey their coach in act I,  take back the stage and heightened acting comes to  the fore ground as the  “games” become something closer to psychodrama, and everything that was simmering underneath  suddenly comes bubbling to the surface. The result is extremely powerful and it is at that point you understand that the first act is a set up, and to what extent this is a magnificently crafted play.   It all connects most beautifully at that point, as the site of the drama class becomes a metaphor for people’s lives that have been deeply transformed by this interaction with other individuals, within the microcosm of the drama class. The course becomes a space of life where individuals have   been forced to communicate with the others in the class, in ways that have forced them to confront themselves.   You leave the theatre with a sense of relief, and a feeling that you have seen some fine performances.

Robin Fisher’s bright exercise room with a huge mirror on one side, associated with Jock Munro’s charged lighting effects, create a happy, positive and cheerful acting space devoid of shadows, a place where no one can hide anything, which translates the total honesty that informs the theory behind this kind of theatre class. The lighting becomes an important part of this transformation as the colours move from a brightly lit space to a shadowy world that opens into a cyclical time/space where the past the present and the future all collide.  The characters blossom, they have surmounted their demons, they have unlocked what was always there within them, and they just had to discover their essence on their own. The therapy has served its purpose and the transformation is complete.

Under Lise Ann Johnson’s astute and meticulous direction, the stellar cast gave us a series of performances that captured the particularity of each member of the class, hiding a darker side of an expressive exterior that was really only the tip of the iceberg.    Mary Ellis, the smiling, feel good extremely empathetic drama teacher who wants everyone to be happy, is  haunted by the memories of her first encounter with a handsome hippy husband and soon we see how those memories become an obstacle to her ability to  confront her failing marriage . James,  the  husband played by John  Koensgen, becomes  an  troubled individual harbouring things he can’t express,  uneasy in his tense, guilt ridden  body.  His revelations are almost excruciating and the actor’s body and drawn face interiorize his inner struggle. He only relaxes when he talks to Theresa.  Andy Massingham as Schultz the self-conscious, slightly naïve, even timid male, a carpenter who is smitten with the athletic, graceful “hooping” Theresa (Sarah McVie) must also deal with rejection and his own demons that haunt him. The physicality of the play, where they are all involved in various collective and often really  spontaneous exercises (that could change every evening) curiously bring us closer to the reality of Massingham who is also a  drama teacher  currently  experimenting with the body in his own acting classes  at the Ottawa Theatre School.  Sarah McVie, whose career has already taken her from Stratford to the NAC, poses and exhibits her body in such a way that her character appears to cry out its need to find companionship. These  physical encounters which were exemplified by the strange games of the drama class were at the root of the way the characters constructed themselves. . We quickly see how these acting games often revealed much more about the person speaking, the person doing the imitating, than about the individual being described.  The process seemed to grow on the audience just as much as on the characters who were taking the drama class and a strange fusion of reality and play came into being as the roles seemed to create an ambiguous in-between space where actors and  characters were somehow interacting in a fuzzy realm of reality that was not always definable. It was all extremely interesting.

The real revelation of the evening was Catherine Rainville who comes to the GCTC stage for the first time, playing a deeply troubled young lady, worried about her parent’s eventual divorce which she projects into a tableau during one of the drama games.  Her transformation was quite spectacular, as she blossoms out of her straggly hoody of a the sullen youngster   into the  multi-layered urban chic dress  of a  young woman who has taken hold of her life and is finally able to take part in the games in a meaningful way. The final confrontation, 10 years in the future, a curiously realistic game between Rainville and a  masterful Andy Massingham, was  most  beautifully nuanced, as Rainville let herself flow into that  moment of recognition, of confession, of personal acceptance. It all unfolds with some hints of intentional discomfort and malaise but with a sense that her life has finally fallen into place. And she plays it all without a drop of excess sentimentality. It was very moving indeed. This is a fine show that is both a crowd pleaser and a play that develops towards unexpected heights.

The Circle Mirror Transformation plays at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre until June 10. 2012. Call the theatre at 613-236-5196 for tickets and information.

Written by Annie  Baker
Directed by Lise Ann Johnson
Set and costumes:  Robin Fisher
Lighting:   Jock Munro
Composer/sound design:  Marc Desormeaux

Marty                          Mary Ellis
James                         John Koensgen
Schultz                       Andy Massingham
Theresa                      Sarah McVie
Lauren                       Catherine Rainville

A Great Canadian Theatre Company production that plays from May 22 to June 10, 2012

Ottawa, Alvina Ruprecht, 25 May, 2012. This is a modified version of the original post on