I’ve titled this post Thinking About… Annie Baker to keep it consistent with the rest of my Tuesday meditations on artists who have inspired me, but it isn’t Annie Baker’s entire body of work I’ve been wrestling with: it’s CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION. The production in DC—which featured my unendingly gifted friend Jennifer Mendenhall—just closed, or I’d insist you go see it; if it’s playing wherever you live, don’t miss the opportunity. I can’t stop thinking about this play. I can’t seem to figure it out.
At first glance, it’s a rather humble story: five somewhat ordinary lives intersecting over the course of a five-week acting class. The story was so low-key, in fact, that I almost dismissed it outright as a slight venture, overly reliant on meta-theatricality. (A play about acting? Really?) To have done so, however, would have been a grave error. This play is only small in stature in the way that, say, Willa Cather’s work is small in stature: it concerns itself with real, simple, vital human lives, rather than grandiose ideas.
Real, simple, vital human lives: lives bound together in a circle; lives undergoing both minor and momentous transformations; lives in which we see ourselves as if in a mirror. What might seem humble, in other words, becomes essential rather quickly.
But how does Annie Baker do it? How does the play actually function? I’ve been hearing the term “new naturalism” applied to her work, but what does that really mean?
As it happens, a few days after I saw CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION I attended the opening of an excellent production of THE ODD COUPLE. (It’s at Theater J, folks in DC, and a genuinely stellar cast does Simon’s work proud.) Now… when you think of naturalism, new or otherwise, a play like THE ODD COUPLE is probably the first thing that comes to mind. I can assure you, however, that Simon’s play bears only a shallow resemblance to Baker’s.
Where THE ODD COUPLE moves at a rapid clip, one line nipping at the heels of another, CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION is riddled with silences. Annie Baker, I understand, is rather rigid with regard to the lengths of the pauses in her work. The question of whether she’s “directing on the page” I will leave to others; to my mind, what she’s doing is ensuring that audiences have time to settle into her story—to feel each line respond to (rather than simply follow) the one that came before it.
Where THE ODD COUPLE consists entirely of a string of high-pitched moments, each more important than the next, CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION looks a great deal more like… well, like any old Thursday, at least most of the time. It isn’t until the last few scenes (of which there are dozens, by comparison to Simon’s small handful) that the stakes get raised significantly, and even then it only happens in small increments. In that way, I think, CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION is just like life—it’s even more naturalistic, in other words, than what we think of as naturalism.
Oddly, though, there’s a way in which the naturalism of CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION becomes thoroughly symbolic, too. The play’s title is aptly chosen; the story is full of symbolic circles, for example, from a hula hoop to a ring of acting students, not to mention one giant mirror reflecting the audience back upon itself. (I’m assuming the mirror is scripted, not a choice made by the scenic designer of the production I saw.) It’s almost as if by narrowing her focus so minutely, Annie Baker has literally discovered the DNA inside her story. It might even be safe to say that the basic building blocks of which her play is composed—circles, a mirror, and transformations—are the same chromosomes one might find if one trained a microscope on any other play. She’s the dramatic equivalent, almost, of Watson and Crick.
What I can’t figure out, though, is whether what she’s done is just a gimmick. If she does it again, will her work start seem like an imitation of itself? Will the trick get old? Or is this more than a gimmick; is it, instead, a revolution? Has she invented a new genre, of sorts, one that will prove to be especially appropriate to the dramatic demands of the modern age? This, I believe, only time will tell.