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Monday, October 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 52.0° F  Overcast
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Mercury Players Theatre plays uncomfortable acting games in Circle Mirror Transformation
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Circle Mirror Transformation boasts a great cast with many familiar faces.
Credit:John A. Smith

Circle Mirror Transformation by Mercury Players Theatre might feel familiar to anyone who's taken an enrichment acting course at a community center. Complete with an overly enthusiastic instructor, abundant awkward silences, and uncomfortably personal acting games, the play takes you within the walls of an adult drama class.

Despite being about drama, there's not a lot of drama in this show itself. The plot is minimal and unfolds through the devices of acting games and monologues. Much of the action is implied and happens offstage. Instead, Circle Mirror Transformation (running through Feb. 16 at the Bartell Theatre) focuses mostly on its characters: four adult students and their instructor. Tensions between characters are subtle as we follow the class through its six sessions, watching the class members connect and disconnect with each other and with themselves.

Circle Mirror Transformation boasts a great cast with many familiar faces. I was especially pleased to see Sarah Karon back on stage with Mercury Players. As Theresa, she's an enthusiastic participant in the class who catches the eye of recently divorced Schultz. Schultz, played by Edric Johnson, is the most fascinating role of the play. Schultz is the most complex and real of all the characters, and Johnson gets his part just right.

Marcy Weiland is a perfect choice for class instructor Marty. Marty takes her job a little too seriously, seeming simultaneously smug and sweet -- a manipulative combination. Her husband, James, played by Mark Snowden, is a student in the class. His motive in taking the class isn't overt, but it seems he's been persuaded by his wife. He's reluctant, but willing to give things a shot. 16-year-old Lauren is a classic teenager -- she appears aloof, but opens up about her struggles as the group gets more comfortable. Piera Siegmann is especially attentive to body language, making Lauren feel very real.

The show is staged on the stage, of course, but there's a twist: The audience too is seated onstage. The Bartell's Drury Theatre has been turned into an intimate black box theater. I loved the concept, but unfortunately, a lot of scenes involve cast members sitting on the floor and, from my second-row seat, I couldn't see much of what was happening.

It's a promising idea: a play about a drama class, a theatrical mockumentary. But in some ways, Circle Mirror Transformation feels too real -- as if the audience was stuck in that awful class doing exercise after exercise for six long weeks. In fact, I kept wondering why the characters kept coming to class each week.

At one point, teenage Lauren asks Marty, "Are we going to be doing any real acting?" Marty answers, "Honestly, I don't think so." Both women look disappointed. I felt the same.

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