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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Sometimes the best theater happens outside the theater. Like in the line at the grocery store. That little snippet of a conversation that you overhear during checkout. Or maybe in your yoga class: that budding romance between the two over in the corner. It's those moments where you suddenly get a peak into a stranger's life -- where a little detail reveals an entire world.

The new play Circle Mirror Transformation is a little like that. Peeking into five stranger's lives in a community center acting class in small town Vermont, we slowly discover all the everyday drama that's packed into tiny awkward and comic moments.

The play tracks the progress of a six week class for amateur thespians. In short vignettes, we get bits of the acting class exercises but more importantly we get to be a fly on the wall during the breaks. It's less about the class and more about the lives that unfold...and at times fall apart every week. Part of the power of the piece is its attention to detail. Take the set: a rec center dance studio meticulously recreated by set designer David Zinn. It's all there -- the wood laminate floor, the yoga ball, the blue mats in one corner, the cubbies for your shoes, the AV cart with a boom box, the hallway in two-tone lavender with stenciled children holding hands.

I won't give away too much about the characters -- part of the fun is piecing together who's who -- like the eavesdropping we all do at the grocery store. In a way, the characters are stereotypes or archetypes. We have the brooding, angst ridden, 16-year-old girl. The teacher -- an earth-mother hippie type with flowing clothes and ankle tattoo to match...you get the idea. If you've ever been in any kind of art or exercise class you've met these people and if you've ever been in an acting class there will be moments so familiar you'll cringe with recognition.

What keeps the play from descending into cliche are the courageous silences. It might sound odd to applaud playwright Anne Baker for the absence of words, but what the characters don't say is as important as what they do. The play is built around those awkward moments of personal interaction and the ballet of body language: where someone sits, the reactions when someone walks in the room, how closely they place their water bottles to one another, the awkward moment of pretending to check for cell phone messages that aren't there. All these added up to an Obie Award last year for the 29-year-old Baker.

The character's journeys are predictable and simple but there's something comforting in that -- and the honesty and simplicity with which they're brought to life. The play's uncomfortable pauses demand a cast that's patient and confident, LA veterans like Linda Gehringer and Arye Gross show remarkable restraint. It's a beautiful irony that the play requires actor's talented enough to play awkward amateur actors.

Circle Mirror Transformation plays through January 30 at South Coast Rep and it's worth the trip to hear a promising new voice in the American theater.

For info on the show text the word “curtain” to 69866.

What theater has you excited? Join the conversation at KCRW.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.


Banner image of Arye Gross and Linda Gehringer in Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker: Ben Horak/SCR

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