by MICHAEL J. OPPERMAN
Inevitably, talking about Yellow Tree Theatre productions starts with talking about the space. Often the first thought on pulling up to the building is something like ‘is this it?’ Or ‘am I here?’ The theater lives in a lowrise line of storefronts in Osseo, welcoming but nondescript. This first impression never prepares you for the ‘through the looking glass’ experience of walking into Yellow Tree Theatre. That alone is worth the drive (which is only about twenty minutes, folks).
At the end of a corridor, a room filled with tables & books expands impossibly up & back. There is something very Fantastic Mr. Fox about entering through a pair of glass doors off a parking lot and emerging into a space that feels carved out of trees, cozy and civilized. The energy at Yellow Tree Theatre is always festive and friendly, a neighborhood feel that the cofounders strive so passionately to foster. The minimalist performance space to the right is occluded by heavy dark curtains (and contains surprisingly comfortable chairs).
True to Yellow Tree Theatre’s aesthetic; Circle Mirror Transformation is quirky, surprising, inspiring, and reminds us ‘about being human.’ Winner of a 2010 Obie Award for Best New American Play and voted one of the top 10 plays of 2009 by both the New York Times and New Yorker, playwright Annie Baker’s work follows five people during a six week community acting class. Over the course of these six weeks, depicted in brief vignettes punctuated by darkness, the five explore vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. The results are not always pretty.
Dan Hopman’s Schultz is raw and uncertain, a divorced carpenter looking for connection and catharsis in the class. His attraction to Theresa (Jessica Lind Peterson) is immediate and obvious. Peterson brings a buoyant energy to Theresa, both the appearance of emotional availability (so clearly attractive to Schultz) and a deeper ambivalence about relationships and trust. The trajectory of their relationship is unpredictable from the first moment.
Marty, thoroughly inhabited by Doree Du Toit is the class instructor. Unexpectedly, one of the students is her husband James (Kurt Schweickhardt). At first, their marriage seems intimate, believably complicated. An acting exercise, used to great effect by Baker, requires each person to adopt the voice of another to tell that person’s story. In an early scene, James portrays Marty lovingly during this exercise. Through the course of the play, their relationship is challenged. I’m not going to pretend it’s not painful to watch.
Lauren (Tara Borman) is a sixteen year old aspiring actress (and possibly veterinarian) who watches them alternatively bemused and disgusted. She is impatient with the acting exercises (she wants to ‘do real acting’), and alienated by the interpersonal dramas. Borman plays her subtly, allowing for a character arc that is credible and touching.
The transformations of each character are compelling and the acting superb. Each scene elegantly provides a site for conflict that moves the play forward. The writing is deft, funny, poignant. I’m purposely leaving out plot points and details about the characters because the experience of getting to know them is so rewarding and I don’t want to spoil that for anyone. Moving and thoughtful, the Yellow Tree Theatre production of “Circle Mirror Transformation” is more than worth the trip.
Circle Mirror Transformation. By Annie Baker. Directed by Andy Frye. Presented by Yellow Tree Theatre, February 1-24. Information at http://www.yellowtreetheatre.com/shows.php.