On Theater: Improv on lives and loves at SCR

"Are we ever going to do any real acting?"

That question, posed by the youngest student in a "creative drama" course tucked away in the hills of Vermont, pretty much sums up "Circle Mirror Transformation," South Coast Repertory's latest production.

There is, of course, real acting in playwright Annie Baker's dramatic comedy about a handful of locals enrolled in a theater class leaning heavily on improvisation. But, as interpreted by director Sam Gold (who helmed the original Obie Award-winning New York production), it comes sandwiched between layers of awkward improv and uncomfortable periods of silence.

There are only four students in upbeat instructor Marty's Vermont acting class, one being her husband, James. Also aboard are Theresa, an experienced New York actress on the rebound; Schultz, a middle-aged carpenter, recently divorced and vulnerable; and Lauren, a sullen teenager hoping to play Maria in her school's production of "West Side Story."

These characters intertwine both in classroom exercises and life encounters, forming new relationships and dissolving old ones. And, in the SCR production, they successfully convey the impression that all this is happening for the first time, segueing through the twists and turns of real life.

In between, the students engage in theater games. One, repeated to the point of frustration, involves all parties lying on their backs and attempting to alternately count to 10 without two people speaking at once.

Gold's cast comprises a splendid ensemble, but one performance stands out with clarity and conviction. Marin Hinkle's Theresa, the transplanted New York actress, is exciting to watch as part of a quintet that's intentionally painted as bland. Her zest for life amid a threadbare emotional existence is beautifully rendered.

Veteran SCR actress Linda Gehringer also excels as Marty, the class leader, about whom we really know quite little as she probes the inner workings of the others. She and Brian Kerwin's James share a marriage that may be crumbling, and Kerwin frets effectively over his lack of communication with his grown daughter.

The least comfortable class member is Shultz, divorced a year but still wearing his wedding ring. Ayre Gross presents this character as awkward and vulnerable, especially to Theresa's charms, and given to extended periods of silence.

The teen-aged girl, Lauren, played by Lily Holleman, is shy and sullen, with little to contribute at first, though she warms up convincingly as the show progresses. She and Gross wind up the play with a compelling depiction of their characters, and the others, as they imagine them 10 years down the line.

David Zinn's setting is a windowless dance studio, intentionally drab. Contemporary costumes, by Angela Balogh Calin, are effective, as are the lighting effects of Mark Barton.

"Circle Mirror Transformation" (the title comes from one of the exercises) depicts awkward attempts at art in the hinterlands without becoming malicious or satirical. It's an engrossing, if sometimes frustrating, experience.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Circle Mirror Transformation"

Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until Jan. 30

Cost: $28 to $66

Call: (714) 708-5555

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