The local press has been buzzing with news of Annie Baker, playwriting’s hot new thing, at least around here, with a three play festival (it’s not a trilogy) split between the Huntington, SpeakEasy, and Company One at the BCA through November 20th. I’ve caught the Huntington’s Circle Mirror Transformation and SpeakEasy’s Body Awareness, but not Company One’s production of The Aliens. (I’m not Larry Stark, you know.) This is unfortunate because, from what I’ve read, it seems to be the one of the three plays that pushes Baker’s trademark awkwardness and silent conversational ruts to the greatest extreme. Moreover, it received the most intimate staging in one of the BCA’s rehearsal halls. With the smallest cast and being set behind a coffee shop, out by the dumpster, the play, I’m assuming, demands the greatest level of physical intimacy of the three.
But Baker’s precisely scripted inarticulateness seems best served with a certain level of intimacy, notable missing from the Huntington production. Some might call Baker one of great new voices in theater, strange, because her language is not new, but rather familiar and mundane; so quotidian in its diction, stilted rhythm, and content that it strikes one as belonging not to a stage or a script, but to a voicemail, cocktail party, or the next cubical. When writing she actually reads lines into Garage Band on her Mac, playing them back to herself to ensure the authenticity of her characters’ tongue-tied speech patterns.
The three plays are set in the fictional town of Shirley, VT, the nom de guerre of Baker’s own hometown, Amherst, MA–the Brewer to her Reading, PA. Although Shirley possesses a quirky and basically irrelevant history described in the programs (it’s host of the Vermont Gourd Festival, was named for Lord Henry Shirley who tried to exterminate the Native American population with smallpox, boasts a small community of Cambodian refugees, was once a haven for nudists, etc.), it is by no means a Yoknapatawpha County.
The plays don’t overlap in covering their three very different slices of Shirley society. Actually, Baker (from reading her quotes) only continues to set plays there by default, succumbing to an internal temptation that probably has less to do with some far-reaching authorial intent and more with the fact that all these plays contain substantial autobiographical content–as is to be expected from a young playwright like Baker. Though, not so much, and not in such a way that anyone has to sit around with a cipher of her Amherst childhood. Baker’s too smart and not indulgent enough for that.
“Circle Mirror Transformation” takes on the intermittent structure of the syllabus of the under-enrolled community center acting class it’s set in, giving us a series of short scenes of acting games, bathroom breaks, and awkward pre- and post-class banter (sometimes it sounds like an ESL class for Shirley’s Cambodian refugees) that fade to black. I suspect some of the play’s popularity is owed to the fact that it is an inside play, poking fun at acting class exercises performed at the expense of actual acting, as hoodied teenager Lauren (an A+ performance by Maria Polizzano) observes.
Marie Polizzano (Lauren), Michael Hammond (James), Jeremiah Kissel (Schultz), Besty Aidem (Marty), and Nadia Bowers (Theresa) in the Huntington's "Circle Mirror Transformation," (T. Charles Erickson)
For a lot of non-theater people, the surface comedy of Baker’s theater game parodies might work better in a five-minute SNL sketch than a two hour play, but, as in an acting class where these games are meant to build relationships, cohesion, and emotional dexterity, these games are the basic narrative devices that drive the play. Without expressive or even very descriptive language and dramatic action (that doesn’t happen off-stage, as it usually does here), these histrionic trust falls tease much of the emotional content.
Baker’s theater games probably work out better for us than for the students. The only one who’s really set on improving her acting is Lauren, the taciturn Ally-Sheedy-in-The-Breakfast-Club-type in the back of the room, who’s looking to be cast in her high school’s production of West Side Story. Awkward divorcée Schultz (played gawkily Jeremiah Kissel, but gawky is a good thing here) is there to fill his emptiness and get out of his condo for a night, sexy NYC emigré Theresa (Nadia Bowers) has worked as an actress, but has given the vocation up to study acupuncture and Rolfing, and James (Michael Hammond) is only there because his granola-vore wife Marty (Betsy Aidem) is teaching it.
The class would lose its critical mass if one student were to skip or drop it, but we get the picture everyone here doesn’t have much else going on. Schultz is alone and smitten with his classmate Theresa, who’s getting over her NYC ex-boyfriend, Lauren obviously isn’t one of the popular kids, choosing to spend her evenings here rather than at the malt shop or something, James’ daughter won’t return his calls and, it turns out, his and Marty’s marriage isn’t exactly rock solid. Even though few of the play’s major dramatic events occur on-stage and during class time, they do happen around the class. At least two critics have pointed out the similarity with Chekov.
Jeremiah Kissel (as Schultz), Marie Polizzano (as Lauren), Betsy Aidem (as Marty), Michael Hammond (as James), and Nadia Bowers (as Theresa) (T. Charles Erickson)
The play strives for a 21st century realism with its language, plain Jane set (by Christine Todesco) and costumes of wrinkled khakis, hiking boots, and yoga pants (by Bobby Frederick Tilley II) (both did sets & costumes for all three plays), which can leave one a little bored, desiring a little more drama or comedy, beyond the theater game parodies. The play does chronicle a brief extracurricular relationship between Schultz and Theresa, but we know they’re not much a match from the beginning; she’s either out of his league or just rebounding. And the characters do source material from their own pasts to act out, or at least do some kind of exercise with. The juicy stuff doesn’t really come until the end, that’s marked by Lauren’s opening up/coming-of-age and Maria Polizzano’s own praise worthy performance.
The characters of SpeakEasy’s Body Awareness don’t struggle as much with getting their words out. After all, they’re from Shirley’s ultra-progressive academic side of the tracks. Like Circle Mirror is structured upon a class syllabus, Body Awareness happens over something called Body Awareness Week, Shirley State’s re-branding of National Eating Disorder Week. The play begins with the week’s MC Phyllis (Adrianne Krstansky), a stammering psychology professor, giving the opening remarks and offering some of the week’s highlights, including a dance troupe of Palestinian refugees, to an audience of Shirley Staters. Dancing Palestinian refugees is not, however, the kind of body awareness Baker is concerned with.
Most of the play’s action happens within the cosy, bookishly sophisticated (in spirit, not in value) home of Phyllis, her girlfriend Joyce (Paula Plum), a high school cultural studies (read: not social studies), and her too-old-to-be-living-at-home son Jared from her heterosexual days (Gregory Pember), an amateur lexicographer with a penchant for the OED and phone sex lines, who may or may not have Asperger’s.
Paula Plum (as Joyce) and Gregory Pember (as Jared) (Craig Bailey)
The narrative is a little more complete here than in Circle Mirror, relying less on character backstory and off-stage action, and the characters are more enhanced–Phyllis with her militant political correctness and Jared’s nervous ticks and attachment to an electric toothbrush–sometimes, it feels, the play is reaching a borderline state of parody, so that Baker can communicate her feminist thesis, that strikes me as a little simple and obvious. But, even when the characters appear to be acting as comic parodies (they are really funny), they don’t lose the realism and vulnerability that Baker achieved so well with the characters in Circle Mirror.
Although Jared has his problems, as a half-formed adult with an overly sensitive mother, and Phyllis really goes after him with a diagnosis of Asperger’s, the play begins in some kind of post-counter-culture progressive domestic bliss. (It’s clear that Baker doesn’t put much value in traditional family units.) The arrival of photographer Frank Bonitatibus (Richard Snee), brought in for a student center exhibition of his female nudes as part of Body Awareness Week, spices things up. Phyllis must have forgotten to Google his name after one of the Body Awareness Week planning committee meetings and agreeing to have him as a house guest, because she immediately finds him and his art offensive and misogynist.
So offensive, in fact, that to any reasonable audience, her reaction is disproportionate, rude, and irrational. Her own body issues, having to do with her own body and her possessiveness over Joyce’s (Joyce is the one doing all the cooking), who flirts with and wants to pose for Frank, become transparent. And her academic cant, Deepak Chopra quotes, and even her dog eared copy of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom become a thin surface membrane of a defence against her own unresolved issues which are, if Baker’s parallel serves us correctly, as deep and clinical as Jared’s–the 21-year-old virgin who works at McDonald’s and throws around the word “retard” enough that it would be offensive if he wasn’t, well…
Frank is an odd foil, with his new-age spirituality and hippy chill out man attitude, to this firecracker feminist. (Between the two plays, Frank is Baker’s only grown-up hippy who hasn’t at least partially grown up.) We’re not sure whose side we’re supposed be on…probably neither since Frank is the most parodic and Phyllis’ lines, hands down, earn the most eye rolls. It’s at least clear that Phyllis’ brand of cultural politics is bad and her resentment misplaced, but we all know that. Baker’s take on Shirley academe just isn’t that interesting, but aside from the this core “polemic,” the play is really good and really funny. Perhaps it’s just trying to take itself too seriously?
Adrianne Krstansky (as Phyllis) & Paula Plum (as Joyce) (Craig Bailey)
Todesco’s set has a few holes in it, but features a gorgeous installation of mahogany-colored panelling around the entire stage. Pember is thoroughly in character in every frustrated glare, nervous tick, and eccentric gesture; from shouting matches with his mom, to reading reading his condensed OED with a magnifying glass. Joyce comes naturally to Paula Plum–with great comic effect and chemistry with Snee–giving us a woman who’s experienced some trauma and some tragedy and has something suppressed inside herself that she wants to free, without the needs or wishes of others getting in the way for once.
Krstansky doesn’t provide Phyllis with very much vulnerability (besides that which we read into the character), nor are whatever emotional changes she undergoes at the end of the play (she does seem to come around a bit) made clear to us. While her actions are decidedly different, the process of arriving at those actions isn’t there. Krstansky does have an excellent and precise handle on Phyllis’ inarticulate and not-so-sophisticated language and delivers some beautifully clumsy and sincere monologues to her Body Awareness Week audience. As much as I like this play and as much as I love Krstansky (who’s actually really well cast for the role), the character itself feels incomplete.
The play begins as a very modern family portrait with Frank on the outside and ends in the same way, with Frank actually taking their family portrait–something he wouldn’t usually do, since Jared is a man and everybody has their clothes on. They’ve made up, brought together by some trouble Jared got himself into and, in a very dramatic and poetic gesture, are performing Shabbat with grape juice (no booze in this house) and an excerpt from Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, since Joyce doesn’t remember much from Hebrew school.
The Huntington’s Circle Mirror Transformation runs through November 14th at the BCA’s Wimberly Theatre; tickets are $25-$65. SpeakEasy’s Body Awareness runs through November 20th at the BCA’s Roberts Studio Theatre; tickets are $30-55.