Tag: Annie Baker
Changing others for good, sometimes forever
|Victory Gardens Theater presents|
|Circle Mirror Transformation|
|Written by Annie Baker
Directed by Dexter Bullard
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17 | tickets: $35-$50 | more info
Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer
Slow and steady wins the race, so they say. In less than two hours, Annie Baker’s justly praised drama marches to its own different drummer as it covers a fairly uneventful six weeks in the course of a community-theater adult class for “Creative Drama” in the small town of Shirley, Vermont. (Don’t worry—This gentle character drama has none of the cruelty of Waiting for Guffman.) Dexter Bullard’s local premiere explains why New York went a bit crazy over this minimalist masterwork, where less is so much more than more ever was.
“Creative” is the operative word, because the four students and one teacher aren’t ramping up to a real rehearsal of an actual play, let alone a finished production. Teacher Marty (Carmen Roman,as a mentor with miseries) leads the hopeful thespians in a series of touchy-feely theater games and emotive exercises. These build a lot more trust and self-esteem than they could ever nurture trained acting that could actually be used to earn a living. (They resemble the Viola Spolin-style Method-acting tricks spoofed in the song “Nothing” from A Chorus Line.)
But the fact that Marty puts technique far above content perfectly suits this still-waters-run-deep comedy. The “transformation” in the title refers to the barely perceptible ways in which people change each other for good and sometimes forever. Baker doesn’t bother to explain how or why they do it. Much is left unspoken but not unfelt, even when the action seems one protracted non sequitur.
Besides Roman’s conflicted instructor, we meet Lauren (a concentrated Rae Gray), a seemingly surly, very complicated 16-year-old who really does want to act and craves a chance to be someone other than a complicated teenager who really does want to act. She bonds with her opposite, 55-year-old James (Joseph D. Lauck, hiding far more than he shows, especially about his relationship with Marty): James has his own domestic backstory which he wants to escape from, not draw upon as the games require. Lori Myers energizes Theresa, the new girl in town, who finds herself drawn to now-available Schultz (Steve Key), an estranged husband who’s shy and a tad too sensitive even for this situation.
The games they “play” yield a series of “Truth or Consequences” moments of truth: In one devastating moment, they read each other’s darkest secrets: We can only guess whose they really are. What’s most amazing over the course of the play is the occasional “reenactments” in which one student plays another: From the depth and detail of the portrayals you realize just how much quality time they’ve spent together.
The fact that not much happens here is exactly the point – and for many theatergoers that, alas, may be exactly the problem. Nothing epic sparks the story. But Baker has created a theatrical complement to real life. Their assorted epiphanies, turning points and kinetic breakthroughs are few and far between, especially in a span as short as six weeks. Just because the life-changing stuff doesn’t happen often or as expected doesn’t mean that what’s left doesn’t deserve the respect of a dramatic depiction. Circle Mirror Transformation is very respect-full.
Circle Mirror Transformation continues thru April 17th at Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performance Tues-Saturday: 8pm, Saturday matinee: 4pm, Sunday matinee: 2pm, and Wednesday matinee at 2pm. Tickets are $35-$50 and can be purchased online or by calling 773-871-3000.
Profound storytelling at Profiles
|Profiles Theatre presents|
|by Annie Baker
directed by Benjamin Thiem
at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway (map)
through June 27th | tickets: $30-$34 | more info
The dilemma would vex Solomon: How to make sure you are seen without also being judged? Admitted or not, it’s a query that niggles at the very core of existence, a philosophical battle embedded in situations ranging from first dates to, arguably, last rites. Nobody wants to be invisible. But with visibility, there is an inevitable degree of objectification. Or is there?
Annie Baker’s Body Awareness puts the debate in terms as complex as they are hilarious and ironic. Directed by Benjamin Thiem for Profiles Theatre, this is the theatrical equivalent of a page-turner: The story is ultra-compelling, the characters are people you care about and recognize. As for the fraught moral fog they attempt to navigate in dealing with issues of body, self, sexuality and fidelity, it’s the stuff of real life, minus the boring parts.
The conflict simmers toward boil-over when lesbian high school instructor Joyce (Barb Stasiw) starts bleaching, plucking and pruning a in preparation for a naked photo shoot. Her partner Phyllis (Cheryl Graeff) quickly blows a righteous feminist gasket over the situation: Joyce, Phyllis rails, is caving in to the demands of the “male gaze.” By so succumbing, Phyllis threatens, Joyce is committing an unforgivable act.
So, is bleaching one’s mustache an act of willful subjugation to the patriarchal hierarchy? If one shaves ones legs before baring them in public, is one reinforcing the sort of deeply damaging objectification that turns women into sex objects and nothing more? Or is the whole culture of plucking/waxing/bleaching/powdering/ad infinitum just indicative of an elevated sort of self-care? After all, if Joyce feels ugly walking around hirsute and au naturelle, surely it’s her right to make herself feel better (and beautiful) by breaking out the depilatories. As the questions roar, the undertone of ironic comedy is unmistakable. Who knew the simple act of plucking one’s unibrow could be so fraught with political implications?
Playwright Baker isn’t satisfied to simply frame a heated debate in terms of a highly literate lesbian couple. (Joyce is a high school teacher, Phyllis a college professor.) Body Awareness benefits hugely from the character of Joyce’s son Jared (Eric Burgher, all tightly wound nerves and frustrated anger), a self-proclaimed “autodidact” with the social skills of a hermit with Tourette’s. In his early 20s, Jared still lives at home, has never had a date and when he’s not at McDonald’s slinging burgers, spends all of his time poring over the Oxford English Dictionary.
The three are thrown into an emotional vortex with the arrival of Body Awareness Week at Phyllis’ Bennington College-like campus. Amid the feminist puppet shows, the refugee camp dance companies, and the scholarly lectures on feminist paradigms in post-modern literature arrives photographer Frank (Joe Jahraus), a lensman who roams the country taking nude photos of women, including very young women.
Phyllis is appalled and all but calls Frank a kiddie-pornographer. Frank insists he empowers women by allowing them to shed their inhibitions (and their clothes.) Joyce is intrigued, and eventually decides to pose herself. As for Jared, he turns to Frank for some blunt advice about getting girls.
Through it’s 85-minute run time, Body Awareness is seamless merger of a terrific text and an equally deft ensemble. Graeff completes a hat trick with the production. Coming on the heels of The Mercy Seat (our review) and Graceland (our review), this is her third role running at Profiles that defines the very notion of excellence. As Phyllis, she’s an intricate mix of braininess and elitist, of fiercely loyal partner and extremely frustrated de facto step-parent. She’s got a wry, dead-pan delivery that is priceless, yet for all Phyllis’ practical cynicism, Graeff never lets the audience lose sight of the woman’s deeply caring heart.
Burgher also builds on a body of work that is ever more impressive, instilling Jared with the raw, raging hurt of a wounded animal and the obnoxious intellect of an idiot-savant. He’s also got a killer sense of comic timing. If you missed him in Men of Tortuga, Things We Said Today, or Graceland (we will never again be able to look at a decorative fruit arrangement without having an involuntary spit-take), this is your chance to see a young actor rapidly approaching the height of his considerable powers.
Then there’s Jahraus as the photographer/interloper. Understated, slightly arrogant and slightly hostile, he’s a fine fulcrum for trouble. As Joyce, Barb Stasiw is a stand-in for Everywoman of a Certain Age, caught between the limitless demands of her troubled child and the feminist ideology of her partner.
Thiem has the ensemble in seamless formation throughout, spinning a story of compelling ideas and vivid characters. If you leave Body Awareness mulling the implications of the dreaded male gaze, well, good for you. But for all its feminist theory and academic setting, Body Awareness is mostly a fine slice of storytelling.