Circle Mirror Transformation last week at South Coast Rep before it closed. It has gotten plenty of press and attention, and I've already written about Annie Baker a few times on this page. That makes it relevant to my readers and myself, of course, but I've hesitated writing about the performance, in part because it was closing, but also because, well, I don't know why exactly. Something made me want to leave it alone.
The first thing that strikes me about the play is how it seems to resonate with some of the more substantive writing I've done on this page over the past couple of years. I don't exactly know if avant-garde is the right way to describe Baker's writing (possibly The Aliens more than Circle Mirror Transformation), but one of the pleasures of CMT is how well she manages to sneak story into what is seemingly a play where very little happens from a dramatic perspective. Of course, a lot of big things happen, which is why the ending appears to have an emotional climax (I'm thinking of the last counting game, for those who've seen or read it), even when there's not a traditional dramatic build.
And although there's not a traditional dramatic build (and trust me, there really isn't), there is no shortage of formalism at work, particularly with regard to repetition. There's almost a musical quality in the way motifs (the games) are introduced, interrupted, extended, then finally completed in the climax. It's thoughtfully, artfully structured, regardless of how unfamiliar its structure might feel to those used to the conventions of the well-made play.
And as I've pointed out about Baker in the past, it turns to realism to innovate the form and create something that does feel experimental. I really don't think it is. If it were truly experimental, I don't think it would be performed at South Coast Rep, or any other of the dozens of theaters that are going to do the play this year. I do think it's innovative, and I admire it for that reason, but this is not a wildly divergent piece of theater. This is not something that smashes the rules with a hammer and redefines the performer/audience relationship. It may challenge, or even frustrate expectations, but it's working within timeworn traditions here. None of this is a criticism of the work or the theaters that perform it. If anything it's a criticism of any audience (or critic) that would reject it as something too foreign to their experience of what a play is to attempt to engage with it.
I wouldn't say that was a problem on the performance I attended. The audience seemed to respond well enough to it. There was laughter and even a gasp or two. I did have a guy sleeping next to me, but that's not so much rejection as passivity. Or sleepiness. I get sleepy too in plays. Good ones, even.
All that said, the play does raise a lot of questions for me, but I guess these arise as much out of the specifics of this play as they do out of a curiosity about the artist's impulse. I don't really know why Baker's chosen to give the audience such minimalism (I don't know if that's an apt description but I'm going with it). It does seem at least in part due to a pleasure in upending audience expectations, or at least a personal pleasure in moments that do so (in a recent LATimes feature, she descibes a long beat with an empty stage as one of her favorite moments in the whole play with no explanation). Is that the whole point? And if so, is it short-sighted of me to find that unsatisfying?
Perhaps. But then I don't really believe that the play is merely an exercise in style and formalism. If it were, Baker wouldn't bother to let us in on so much of the characters' emotional lives. I don't think the events of the play point with great directness and clarity to its ending, however strange and moving it might be. Okay, maybe they do a little, but if so, there's no great revelatory catharsis to the moment. Then that's something I don't think Baker's interested in giving to the audience either. What she does give is a visceral allusion to what might be the most popular "experimental" play in American Theater, Our Town. That seems appropriate on a couple of levels.
I think I've figured out why I didn't want to write about it after I saw it. It seems a puzzle to me, and one that I'm not sure wants to be finished.