Lance Maynard, Bez Lancial-McMullen (standing), Adrienne Evans, and Celeaciya Olvera in Circle Mirror Transformation

The Playcrafters Barn Theatre's current production Circle Mirror Transformation sounds très à l'avant-garde. However, though it's unconventionally staged, it's one of the most authentic theatrical slices of life I've ever tucked into.

This play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Baker premiered off-Broadway in 2009 and earned four Obies. Now it's part of the Moline venue's Barn Owl Theatre series, which showcases newer works. Mike Turczynski directed (he's also the show's set designer, and sometimes a Playcrafters actor, having appeared in this past May's Sense & Sensibility), and his creative team includes assistant directors Jessalyn Cohen (also Circle Mirror Transformation's costume designer) and Roger Pavey Jr. (the production, lighting, and sound designer who's a fellow Reader theatre reviewer).

On Friday's opening night, I watched five strangers take a six-week community-center acting course utilizing "theatre games." That phrase makes me shudder, which is odd. What memories am I repressing? I must've done similar exercises in high school, or while earning my B.A. in theatre. Years after graduating, I learned anew. My longtime partner had dumped me without actually telling me (but I knew), and in my newly abundant spare time, I attended an acting workshop. I'm sure theatre games were part of it, but I can't remember specifics. Interestingly, within a week after that, I made my former dude admit he was my ex. Was there cause-and-effect? Did my experience with the theatre games allow me to confront him? Anyway, I'm still learning. At one point in the play, the instructor explains to a disappointed student who'd hoped to run scenes that weird flailing and vocalizing, and creating sentences word by word in turn, is acting. And I'm sitting in the audience thinking, "No, it's not!" But by the end of the show, I'd realized: Yeah. It is.

Adrienne Evans, Lance Maynard, Bez Lancial-McMullen, and Celeaciya Olvera in Circle Mirror Transformation

All five of Turczynski's performers were utterly real onstage. I never perceived "acting” – it seemed like I was watching security-camera footage. I felt the characters' awkward reluctance, and sometimes squirmed in empathy at their embarrassment. Bez Lancial-McMullen plays the instructor Marty. She's clearly in charge, though laid back – a guide, not a dictator. Lancial-McMullen is a real-life teacher of various subjects requiring movement and an open mind, and I admired her specific gestures for Marty. I also wanted the instructor's approval of her students' performances. I kept checking her face: Did she like that? Playwright Baker has shrewdly not made Marty lecture, critique, or teacher-splain anything. Instead, she instigates, facilitates, and lets revelations happen independently in her students' (and our) minds. While squawking incoherently, her charges aren't learning how to squawk incoherently better, but gradually come to other understandings.

I was pleased to see Lance Maynard again. He'd appeared in Playcrafters' 2020 Their Town, a production with several fine actors, but he'd particularly shone in creating a whole character during his limited stage time. Here, he's also fully realized as Marty's husband James. Maynard made me believe that the real James was there in the moment – the sum of his life's experiences. As always, Adrienne Evans is a marvel of natural expression. Her Theresa is a would-be professional actor, and while we get intriguing tidbits about her, we're not allowed her whole story. One event developing in real time becomes clearer, and watching Evans' face, I could discern what Theresa had likely done outside this room.

The versatile Eric Teeter plays the carpenter Schultz, and the character and I apparently joined our respective classes for similar reasons. Whether Teeter, as Schultz, is shyly attempting small talk, or sitting silently seething (hey – did I just compose a diction exercise?), he impressively conveys a lot with a little. Traditionally, men are expected to stoically endure, showing neither distress nor excessive enjoyment. Teeter does this at times, and paradoxically makes Schultz an open book with few words and no big monologue.

Bez Lancial-McMullen, Adrienne Evans, Lance Maynard, and Celeaciya Olvera in Circle Mirror Transformation

Lauren, portrayed by Celeaciya Olvera, is in high school and hates this course. She demonstrates this clearly but subtly, exhibiting neither stereotypical teen histrionics nor contempt. Nevertheless, Olvera drew my attention even when she had no lines or overt stage business. I enjoyed this young talent who's pursuing three degrees (one in theatre) when she portrayed Dr. Kunc in Augustana College's The Memo in May, and hope to see her onstage again soon.

Occasionally, one actor (whom I later learned had missed a number of rehearsals due to illness) nonchalantly referred to a script, then tucked it away. It was unobtrusive, and I discerned it carried one of the play's messages – we're all, to some degree, actors acting; some just hide it better. Another thing I learned post-show was that the actors improvise their Circle Mirror Transformation exercises every time. Impressive. Unusually for this space, the play was performed only on its thrust portion. A dance-studio-style mirror blocked the area behind the proscenium, and it proved a helpful set piece – I used it to see faces of those I otherwise couldn't. Also unusual: There were no between-scene blackouts. The stage lights only dimmed, and actors subsequently carried props on or off in character, huddled for a few moments, murmured, and began anew.

My realization: Theatre is about connection – to castmates, audiences, and the world. Listening and responding. Studying and understanding. Handling the unexpected. Destroying inhibitions. Becoming vulnerable. So yes – as Circle Mirror Transformation thrillingly reminds us, theatre games are acting. Even if I still don't get that counting exercise they do.


Circle Mirror Transformation runs at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre (4950 35th Avenue, Moline IL) through August 27, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-0330 and visiting

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