Circle Mirror Transformation begins with a beaming woman entering the room and sounding a tiny bell: a feng shui technique that clears the air and energises the space. The scene – which appears to have been invented by director Shannon Murphy – tells us a lot about this character, but it also establishes precisely the right mood for the show that unfolds. There's a lot of warming, positive energy flowing about the room in this production. We're all safe here.
We peek, as if through a window, into a wooden-floored community centre in Shirley, Vermont. Five individuals – truly an assortment of mixed nuts – gather, unshoe, and play theatre games in a weekly 'creative drama' class. The classes, however, turn out to be much less about theatre and much more about therapy; less about getting in the spotlight than illuminating their inner selves.
Young American playwright Annie Baker serves up the story in light, easy-to-digest – some might even say premasticated – portions. But Circle Mirror Transformation proves to be a wholly satisfying theatre experience with a director and cast willing to dig in and provide the depth. What's far more interesting than the monologuing of backstories – and Baker's script is peppered with long, pregnant silences – is what we learn through watching the characters simply exist.
Every one of them is brought vividly, recognisably and beautifully to life. Marty (Eliza Logan) is the teacher, the very embodiment of New Age mumbo-jumbo, singing her speech and deafly lecturing on the vital importance of listening. There's the blonde former actress Theresa (Jenni Baird), 35, wearing stripy fingersocks, putting her heart and soul into portraying a maple tree and hula-hooping her way into the heart of recently divorced Schultz (Paul Gleeson), 48. Marty's husband James (Alan Dukes), gives the distinct impression of just being there to fill up numbers, while we learn an incredible amount about 16-year-old Lauren (played by 21-year-old Chloe Bayliss in her stage debut, an astonishing find) simply from the way she paces the perimeter of the room, burying her hands in her hoodie pockets as if hoping for invisibility. All of them have something to discover about themselves.
Murphy runs a tight and fast-moving production, padding Baker's scene transitions with breezy guitar-pickin' (composer Steve Toulmin) and slightly odd incidental commentary. She and her cast aim headfirst for funny and get there every time. Bayliss and Dukes in particular have mastered the art of cracking up the audience with a mere look (Lauren's thundercloud expression; James's ever-wearying smile).
That said, the urge to keep the Ensemble Theatre audience atitter occasionally skirts the potential pathos a little too swiftly, too rashly. Too many laughs seems an odd thing of which to complain, but an ill-advised smooch, also seemingly unscripted, nudges proceedings into sitcom territory precisely when a soft-sell might have hit home. A scene in which James and Theresa trade gobbledegook – gobbledegook loaded with meaning – strikes much closer to the heart of Baker's play and the audience.
There's no shortage of explosive theatre on Sydney stages at the moment – guns going off, lungfuls of carbon monoxide, fistfuls of sleeping pills – but Circle Mirror Transformation is more interested in the slow, subtle way that lives can be forever changed – even while you're wearing socks. These are the sort of life transformations, Baker suggests in a sweet quasi-epilogue crafted for maximum sentimental impact, that might only come into focus years later. Murphy's production captures this perfectly. There's a lot to be said for a show whose theatrical embrace is as warm and sincere as that shared between new friends.