I will admit that I have a particular love for non-traditional theatre, for anything that gets us out of the rut of sitting in nice little rows facing the same direction and watching a play unfold through the usual fourth wall. Entering Bay City’s Masonic Temple to enjoy Vanishing Elephant Players first fully produced play, Circle Mirror Transformation, hit all the right notes for me: entering a nondescript side door, climbing a dingy staircase, being greeted by the guerilla artists wearing multiple hats as director, producer, light board operator and house manager. It is the Theatre of Necessity, where a production comes together through that heady combination of sheer will, wild imagination and near-nonexistent means.
Directed by Vanishing Elephant founder Jessica McFarland, Circle Mirror Transformation is staged entirely in the round on the open floor of the temple’s large, Baroque, public space, with intimate seating for perhaps fifty on couches placed about the high-ceilinged room. The play by Annie Baker, who was not credited in the program, is a series of short scenes about an acting class where four students from different walks of life, Lauren (Richelle Arguello), James (Ron Elliot), Theresa (Diamond Magee) and Schultz (Noah Shankool), learn about the craft, each other, and themselves under the tutelage of Marty (Leslie Larkins). The original Off-Broadway production won Obie Awards for Best New American Play, as well as Best Performance, Ensemble and Directing.
A play like this, one that lives and dies on the nuances of body language and flickers of expression that pass between the characters, isn’t terribly well-served by being set in the round, where an audience member will only catch a portion of what each actor is bringing to the scene. While I appreciate the conceptual strength of the choice (the world of the play being inside a literal circle), I missed a lot of important moments because of it. What I was able to see, though, were grounded, realistic performances from a cast who all were clearly invested in the story they were telling. There was no grandstanding or mugging, but rather a cohesive ensemble giving understated performances.
Silence is practically a sixth character in the play. The awkward pauses in conversation reflect the emotional isolation of each member of the class as they try to connect with one another through Marty’s series of acting exercises and games. The simple act of trying to count to ten becomes one of the major plot threads that gives the play its form. I loved the director’s use of silence in the play, and it would have had even more impact if it had been used more sparingly. The frequent 15-20 second blackouts between scenes, with no music or sound bed, leeched any sense of momentum between scenes.
Lighting design was provided by Nick Suchyta and operated by Danessa Hellus, with costumes by Logan LaBrake and stage management provided by Luna Celeste.
Vanishing Elephant Players is a new voice on the Great Lakes Bay theatre scene, one that seems to show a preference for challenging, intimate plays in a stripped down, full-contact setting. They do an excellent job of showcasing their actors’ chops and choosing material that plays to that strength rather than getting caught up with elaborate sets and costumes. There is a place for this type of work in our community, and I applaud and congratulate VEP on their inaugural production.
Circle Mirror Transformation plays August 23-26 at the Historic Masonic Temple in Bay City at 700 N. Madison Street. Tickets are available at the door, or by visiting www.hmtbc.org.