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Huntington’s Circle Mirror Transformation at Wimberly Theatre

Festival brings Annie Baker’s Vermont plays to three stages

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In the slideshow above, College of Fine Arts lecturer Cristina Todesco (CFA’94,’09) talks about designing for Circle Mirror Transformation. Photos by T. Charles Erickson and Kalman Zabarsky

The fictional hamlet of Shirley, Vt., is populated by characters we come to know and feel for in Annie Baker’s three plays about the small town. The 29-year-old playwright’s light, sure touch is apparent in the latest Huntington Theatre Company production, the comedy Circle Mirror Transformation. The play runs through November 14 at the Calderwood Pavilion’s Wimberly Theatre. Simultaneously, Baker’s other Vermont plays, Body Awareness and The Aliens, are being performed from October 22 to November 20, in what is billed as the first-ever “Shirley, VT, Plays” Festival.

Directed by Obie Award–winner Melia Bensussen, the spare, nuanced Circle Mirror Transformation unfolds on a single set—a rural community center where the seemingly innocuous games played in a creative drama class slowly lay bare the lives and vulnerabilities of five characters, a dance instructor and four students.

“I really, really love the director and the actors,” Baker says of the Huntington production. “It’s a great group.” Bensussen, who has directed works by Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress) and Jeffrey Hatcher (Three Viewings, A Picasso), among others, calls Circle Mirror Transformation a play that “in the tradition of great art, teaches you how to be a better human being with great lightness and humor.”

The notion of creating the fictional Vermont town at the Calderwood Pavilion captivated Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois, giving him the idea of three performing companies, each with its own identity, joining to “bring out the richness of a writer’s vision.” Collaborating with the Huntington are SpeakEasy Stage Company, which is producing Body Awareness, and Company One, presenting The Aliens.

The separate Boston productions share a set designer as well as a playwright. College of Fine Arts lecturer Cristina Todesco (CFA’94,’09) designed the Huntington productions A Long and Winding Road and The Atheists, among her many other credits. Todesco, with degrees in painting and scenic design, found her creativity tested in new ways by the subtle demands of Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, which is punctuated with telling silences. “My challenge was not to be theatrical with the room,” she says. She is accustomed to creating sets that are larger than life, and this set “had to be quiet and subtle, and that’s a very different space to be in as a designer,” says Todesco, who visited small town community centers as part of her design research. “There isn’t a lot of description in the script,” she says. “I think Annie wanted something very typical for these people to develop their stories in.” The result is at once pristine and warm.

Todesco worked with lighting designer Dan Kotlowitz, whose lighting conveys not just the studio lighting in the classroom, but the passage of time. For the set of Aliens, Todesco created the backyard of a coffee house. Body Awareness takes place in a home and a lecture hall on a Vermont college campus. “With Body Awareness the set is much more descriptive of who the characters are; it’s very personal,” says Todesco. “Whereas Aliens is very realistic, with lots of realistic detail—not spare, like Circle Mirror.

The decision of how and when to take in each of the Shirley, VT, plays is left to theatergoers. “The three plays are not a trilogy,” says Baker. “They just all happen to take place in the same town. Audiences can see them in whatever order they like.” First staged by New York’s Playwright Horizons, Circle Mirror Transformation won the Amherst, Mass., native an Obie Award for Best American Play. The New York Times found it “absorbing, unblinking, and sharply funny,” and Entertainment Weekly describes it as “riveting.”

The cast includes Michael Hammond, of the Huntington’s Prelude to a Kiss; Betsy Aidem of FX TV’s Rescue Me; Broadway actress Nadia Bowers, whose credits include Doubt and Metamorphoses; Jeremiah Kissel, who appeared in the Huntington productions Two Men of Florence and The Cherry Orchard; and Marie Polizzano, familiar to Huntington audiences for her roles in She Loves Me and How Shakespeare Won the West, as 16-year-old Lauren.

“The fact that these people live in a community that is so rural and disconnected from the hustle and bustle of city life is absolutely specific and crucial to the play,” says Polizzano. “These citizens of Shirley have never taken a creative drama class. They are naive to the intimacy, trust, and openness that the theater exercises will demand. All of this has been important to remember throughout the rehearsal process. As an actor, I’ve had to “un-learn” a lot of these theater exercises, had to try to see them through Lauren’s eyes and not my own.”

The three plays in the Shirley, VT, Plays Festival will have staggered runs, from October 15 through November 20, at the Calderwood Pavilion, 539 Tremont St., Boston: Circle Mirror Transformation at the Wimberly Theatre, Body Awareness at the Roberts Studio Theatre, and The Aliens at Hall A. On six days the productions are scheduled so theatergoers can see them in what the Huntington is calling a marathon format.”

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu. Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on Huntington’s Circle Mirror Transformation at Wimberly Theatre

  • Anonymous on 10.22.2010 at 11:06 am

    beautiful video! It must have been hard to design the sets for three plays running jointly. Good work, though!

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