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Raleigh Ensemble Players' Circle Mirror Transformation explores our inner demons

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I waited patiently for Circle Mirror Transformation to disclose the subtle, secret worlds of a group gathered for an adult beginners' acting class. In several instances I was rewarded—up to a point.

But the payoffs in this production of Annie Baker's skeletal script were so meager that, by the end, I felt I hadn't been on that significant a journey.

The action concerns five people who gather for six weeks of instruction—not in vocal projection, physicality and scene work, but the touchy-feely psychodrama of self-styled "theater games." Though Jillian Holmquist's instructor, Marty, wants the classroom "safe" for Schultz, a divorced, awkward carpenter (the believable Brian Yandle); a former actor named Theresa (Page Purgar); Lauren, a guarded, withdrawn high schooler (a compelling Ros Schwartz); and Marty's husband, James (John Honeycutt), she clearly has no clue what lids she's prying open.

Yes, we learn something important when Lauren casts class members in a "family portrait." And when a recently broken-up couple has to repeat the words "I want to go" and "I need you to stay," the result is also intense.

But the impact of these revelations is dissipated among the many other momentary episodes that make up Baker's script. It doesn't help when, under C. Glen Matthews' direction, a mid-show romance seems too contrived, and Marty and James' conflict isn't sufficiently excavated. Not that Baker's frustratingly minimal script makes that easy.

As a result we learn—a little—about these people, in a work that doesn't change that much about most of their lives. Or, unfortunately, ours.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Psychodrama."

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