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MTC's 'Circle Mirror Transformation' dizzying but true

click to enlarge THEATER AS THERAPY Arwen Anderson and Julia Brothers get into it.
  • THEATER AS THERAPY Arwen Anderson and Julia Brothers get into it.

Annie Baker is not interested in writing the kind of plays everyone else is writing. As a result, her plays are at least as interesting for the way she tells them as for what actually takes place among the characters she puts onstage.

This is good. It's also maddening, confusing, uncomfortable and strange.

In Circle Mirror Transformation, now playing at Mill Valley's Marin Theatre Company, Baker's best instincts and most frustrating quirks all collide. First appearing in 2009, Circle Mirror Transformation ignores conventions while packing in plenty of tiny little pleasures: rich, recognizable characters, complexly layered dialogue, big laughs that come sewn together with gasps of discomfort and dread—all of it wrapped up in a package aggressively designed to feel real. Unfortunately, reality is often baffling, uneven, unsettling and awkward.

Welcome to Circle Mirror Transformation.

In a windowless dance studio in the basement of a slightly dingy community arts center in Vermont (great set by Andrew Boyce), five strangers meet for a six-week theater class, the kind that Baker cut her teeth on as a young aspiring writer. The instructor, Marty (Julia Brothers), has dubious qualifications for teaching the class, which is made up almost entirely of odd acting exercises. Recent New Yorker Theresa (Arwen Anderson) takes turns acting out scenes from her life with three fellow students: fragile divorcé Schultz (Robert Parsons), sullen teenager Lauren (Marissa Keltie) and articulate hippie-turned-administrator James (L. Peter Callender), who we learn is married to Marty.

When not lying on the carpet counting to 10, sitting in a circle passing funny facial expressions from person to person or posing other students into tableaux resembling their most painful memories, the students try desperately to connect with one another, and in some cases, not. Baker is a fan of long silences, and here, in director Kip Fagan's hands, those silences almost become additional characters.

The acting, across the board, is brilliant, and Fagan keeps the action, such as it is, moving through a series of brief scenes linked by sound-filled blackouts. But it takes far too long to figure out how all of these people relate to each other, a major fault. And the "transformations" that eventually take place among these motley characters are infinitesimal by most dramatic standards.

Of course, life seldom follows the rules. Life, like Marty's exercises, rarely makes much sense. That's part of the reality that Baker is showing us in her flawed but fascinating Mirror.

'Circle Mirror Transformation' runs Tuesday–Sunday through Aug. 26 at Marin Theatre Company. 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Showtimes vary. $36–$57. 415.388.5208.

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