Ending an exciting 2011-2012 season, The Great Canadian Theatre Company unveiled a skillfully rendered production of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation on May 24.

On its surface, the play is about five ordinary people who take a creative drama class at a community centre in a fictitious small town in Vermont.  Played by Mary Ellis, John Koensgen, Andy Massingham, Sara McVie, and Catherine Rainville, the characters engage in a series of dramatic exercises over several weeks through which they discover themselves.

The repetitive motions of the drama games they play are deceptively mundane. Every breath, pause and moment of hesitation transforms these dull exercises into revelations of the characters’ loneliness, desperation, frustrations and hope. Within the prism of their small classroom, their everyday tragedies are magnified to comic effect.

Lise Ann Johnson, director and outgoing artistic director at the GCTC, said that the playwright’s dramatic voice appealed to her. “I found it a really quirky play, in that it combined comedy and naturalism,” she said. “It had the heart of a playwright like Chekhov, who manages to capture great characters in a naturalistic setting, but they are sad and funny at the same time.”

The style of the play is so naturalistic, in fact, that it would not be surprising to hear snippets of the dialogue among the idle murmur of the audience during intermissions.

“I think, often what we see in television, film or even theatre these days, it is a stylized version of how people speak,” Johnson said. “Real people are not that articulate. They struggle to find the words that they want to say and she is brilliant in capturing that.”

Despite the seeming simplicity of the dialogue, every detail is meticulously plotted by the playwright and explored by the director to produce startlingly lifelike characters.

“There is only one part of the play that is actually improvised, which is the final moment of Act I or in which they play the Circle Mirror Transformation game,” Johnson said. “What they do in the game changes every night, but absolutely everything else including the ‘umms’ and the ‘errs’ and pauses are all rehearsed and written.”

This careful attention to speech and mannerisms almost turns the play into a mirror for the audience as they reach out and form connections with the characters.

“We wanted the characters to be recognizable to people, to identify with them and to know parts of them,” Johnson said. “It’s a small town in Vermont, but it feels very recognizable, and it could be anywhere in North America,”

Beyond this broader appeal, however, is an underlying dynamic which natives of Ottawa would find entertainingly familiar.

“The playwright is fascinated by small-town Vermont which is a bit of a culture clash between strange, odd people who do not necessarily live in a big city.” Johnson said, noting the coincidental similarities.

Beyond the cultural relevance of the play and its comedic appeal is a powerful narrative of individuals who gradually learn to shed their constrictive public masks and reveal the vulnerable and complex individuals underneath.

“They are bit-versions of themselves because they don’t know each other, or trust each other, or they feel self-conscious and don’t trust themselves,” Johnson said. “Part of what happens over the six weeks is that they get to know each other and because they are doing these exercises get to know themselves. Ultimately they become more truthful with themselves.”

-Photo Courtesy of  Andrew Alexander