I don't know if playwright Annie Baker ever attended a six week community summer drama class like the one depicted in her wonderful work, Circle Mirror Transformation, but it has the painful ring of truth that makes you think she may have at one time. Whether or not that really occurred though is immaterial, this is a remarkably funny, and at times painful, play that marks the opening of the Repertory of St. Louis' Studio series, and I think it's a near-classic. So, whether you attend the production playing upstairs on the mainstage (God of Carnage) or downstairs in the studio, you can't go wrong; both have more than their fair share of laughs.
A dance studio in Shirley, Vermont is the setting for this play, but it could be any town in America. If you ever attended a summer class in a community center, you'll have a idea of the way these characters interact over the course of their time together. It's a small group, which is often typical, and made more so dramatically by the fact that the teacher, Marty's husband James is also a participant. The other three students are unique characters, each of whom is a twist of sorts on a stereotype. You have the thirty-something cute young blonde, the recently divorced guy, and the goth girl. But, what's amazing is the transformation that each does, indeed, go through. They're all touched for good or bad by the events that occur during their time together, and that's what generates the laughs and the knowing sense of drama that permeates as well.
Lynne Wintersteller is pitch perfect as the teacher, Marty, costumed in the kind of loose fitting bohemian ensembles you'd almost expect her to wear if she was the real thing. James is her middle aged husband who makes the mistake of sharing a secret during a class exercise that casts more than a share of doubt on their "idyllic" relationship. Kate Middleton is lithe and attractive as Theresa, the object of interest for the male participants, even though she's still having trouble getting over a failed relationship herself. Danny McCarthy is a quiet riot as Schultz, the divorcee who's immediately drawn to Theresa's obvious charms. He's also the recipient of some of the funniest moments that occur. But, it's Charlotte Mae Jusino who really steals the show as the shy and reclusive Lauren, who eventually comes out of her shell in a big way.
Director Stuart Carden is showing a real knack for presenting new works in engaging fashion, and this play is no exception. The ensemble work is stellar, and the pace is always kept upbeat, even though it's over 90 minutes without an intermission. That works really well here by keeping us in the moment and not breaking the mood. Garth Dunbar's costumes consistently hit the mark, and Jack Magaw's scenic design is also terrific, providing us, and the characters, with a mirrored background that allows for even more insight into the interaction. Mark Wilson's lighting is stellar, and Rusty Wandall's sound design neatly sets the mood for each scene.
The Rep's Studio production of Circle Mirror Transformation is another winner in an already superb season. The laughs come as hard and fast as the knowing nods in this brilliant new work.