Monday, April 25, 2011

Improvising Your Life

(Dobama Theatre is presenting Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation" through Sunday, May 15.)
Dobama Theatre ends its season with "Circle Mirror Transformation," a play so warm, humanistic and forthright that you wish it could date your sister. Playwright Annie Baker has come up with the interesting concept of replacing the Bible and Freud with the improvisational theater games of Viola Spolin. The play works as an updated version of "Marty," but instead of seeking companionship in a dance hall, its small-town, lonely denizens take a theater improv class. Set in a community center in Shirley, Vermont, "Circle" chronicles a summer session.

(Ernest Borgnine in the 1955 movie version of Paddy Chavefsky's "Marty.")
The playwright's clever conceit is to reveal the characters' lives through the process of Spolin's games. Baker is particularly adept at capturing the verisimilitude of thwarted lives: a recently divorced man; a high-school girl from an abusive family trying to find the courage to audition for her school's production of "West Side Story"; a kooky actress recovering from a toxic relationship; an aging hippie who never got over the '60s; and, as the teacher, one of those earth-mother Bohemians you can see at any table at Tommy's.

The play is sometimes done in by its own integrity. With dozens of glimpses into the theater process, the work doesn't develop in a conventional manner. Like eavesdroppers in a coffee shop, the audience is force to piece together the minutiae of the characters' lives. This is a process that can be frustratingly slow, but ultimately it pays off by making us privileged voyeurs.

Befitting the script, the cast is especially deft at capturing the universal pain of average people trying to crack the shell of their inhibitions. Director Juliette Begnier, an experienced local actress, shows great sensitivity in finding the delicate pain and joy in this fragmented, but tender work. If you happen to spot someone nearby sans wedding ring who seems to have been moved by the evening's proceedings, fly right to their side and make him/her your own.

Dobama Theatre presents "Circle Mirror Transformation" through Sunday, May 15. For tickets, call 216-932-3396.

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