(The cast of the metatheatrical play. Photo by Kevin Berne.)
In writing this feature on MTC's production of Circle Mirror Transformation, I got to talk to important Bay Area theater artists like Joy Carlin, Bill English, Lisa Steindler, and Marissa Keltie, all for the first time. I got to meet Kip Fagan, a New York-based director who specializes in new work. I got to have ice cream with Julia Brothers, an actress with whom I worked on Magic Forest Farm, a 2009 MTC production. And one day, I got to bike to Marin and sit in on a rehearsal for this show of which I was not even a part. One actor, L. Peter Callender, told me that in all his years of experience, he'd never had a critic sit in on a rehearsal before. And when that was all done, I got to go home and wax philosophical on Annie Baker, one of my favorite playwrights in contemporary American theater. And this is what I get paid to do.
On the bike ride to Marin, I was reflecting on how charmed my life is. When I tell people I'm a theater critic, they often say things like, "I want to do that one day." And here I am doing it right now: spending my working day biking for four hours and getting to watch artists practice their craft in between. I am lucky, and amidst obsessing over deadlines and applications, my "critical philosophy"and the relentless pursuit of the perfect word, I often forget that fact.
(Feeling characteristically sentimental but uncharacteristically charmed, I even took some photos on the bike ride over.)
(Classic free summertime roadside snack.)
That said, this heightened personal awareness did not make for a better article. I felt obligated to include all the artists I interviewed so they wouldn't feel like their time was wasted, thus overstuffing my article with quotes when fewer, choicer opinions, coupled with more of my own thoughts, might have been more effective. Because of space constraints, I had to omit a discussion of the glorious ordinariness of Baker's characters -- one of my favorite parts of her writing. What's more, I had no clever ideas about structure, which doesn't matter so much in a regular review but can be tricky when I have to both make the actions of real, live artists into a story and analyze the broader significance of those actions, all while giving my readers a good idea of what the artwork is about. I thus used the same structure I used in writing about Theater Pub -- a very imperfect fit.
I saw the show the week it opened; it's a very fine production but not a transcendent one. The way Baker writes allows for performances that seem to be spontaneous, and these actors achieved that quality only occasionally -- with a "hi" here or an elongated pause there. Most of the time I saw staginess that wouldn't have bothered me with other scripts but was very disappointing here, particularly since I observed Fagan and the actors combatting it so strenuously in rehearsal. What this proves to me is that if the rewards of Baker are rich, the challenges she poses are formidable.
Now it's time to channel my appreciation for my luck into writing better criticism. Maybe next time I'll interview fewer people; maybe I'll allow myself more time to free write, or outline, or simply think before I write. If I want to test my intelligence and writing ability, the time is now.
Circle Mirror Transformation has been extended through September 2; info here.