Another look: ‘Circle Mirror Transformation’ at ART, CMNW’s ‘Music of 1912’

Beth Harper and Richard Elmore in "Circle Mirror Transformation"/ Credit: Owen Carey

I woke up last Friday morning excited because I knew that barring unforeseen emergencies I would be at Kaul Auditorium that night listening to Jeffrey Swann, Ida Kavafian and Fred Sherry play Ravel’s Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano in A Minor. Even if you’re not a classical music fan, you’ve probably heard at least some of it. The opening lines are so memorable.

I was moved by them for the first time when Ravel’s trio played a central role in Claude Sautet’s film “Un coeur en hiver” (“A Heart in Winter’), and I’ve sought it out frequently since. I hadn’t seen anyone actually play it for a while, though, and so it was in danger of becoming merely background music for me. The urgency of performance, especially by these musicians, would restore it to me, I figured.

And Saturday night, I was looking forward to Annie Baker’s investigation of acting class, “Circle Mirror Transformation,” mostly because I’ve been thinking about “processes” a lot lately, but also because of the cast, including Richard Elmore up from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the founder of Portland Actors Conservatory, Beth Harper. They know a LOT about process. And I thought it would be funny to watch really good actors try to play real humans who are just learning the art.

Chamber Music Northwest, Kaul Auditorium: Look, I’m going to spoil the suspense completely — the Ravel was amazing, everything I hoped it would be. Swann, Sherry and Kavafian all have more than enough skill to create the textural atmospherics that make the Trio so special, as though you’re listening to an orchestra sometimes, and they have the passion to make the plaintive melodies practically sob from the stage. Well, that takes skill, too. As one friend said at intermission, “The tone, the tone!”

Listening, I realized that I knew the first movement much better than the rest, and so it was almost like listening to it fresh for periods of the final three. I’d completely forgotten how the piano and cello slosh around in their lowest registers, for example, deep and foggy, and perfect in the context. So yes, so often you get more than you expect.

I was also looking forward to David Schiff’s “Class of 1915,” which he arranged, re-set and composed around the popular music of the period when Reed College was founded — foxtrots, rags and blues. Schiff’s intent? Here’s what he told Oregon ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell: “We can’t go on having these two separate but equal histories of 20th century music, which is essentially what we have right now. When you look at history, these guys were talking to each other and listening to each other. They did not exist in separate worlds.”

Schiff knows his way around a foxtrot and a rag, and “Class of 1915” is a brilliant bit of business: the foxtrots jump, the rags swell and the middle movement, “Homage to Handy,” which takes cues from W.C. Handy’s “The St. Louis Blues” and makes something altogether different from it, tense and modern. I’d like to hear it a lot more.

By design, Schiff used the same instrumentation involved in the last piece on the program, Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire: piano, violin, cello, flute/piccolo and clarinet/bass clarinet. Fred Sherry introduced that one by saying he’d performed it more than 200 times (and I imagine he’s played the Ravel even more), which is fitting, given its importance in the development of 20th century music, though this Schoenberg isn’t the thorny 12-tone composer he’d become. Pierrot Lunaire owes something to the Berlin cabaret scene, with its sing-songy vocals (supplied for us by the wonderful Mary Nessinger) and the Gothic melodrama of its text. And maybe it’s best venue in Portland would be one of our cross-over clubs, such as Holocene or the Someday Lounge.

Schoenberg never allows you to get a bead on his atonal musical intentions, so every second is unpredictable, though he employs typical classical music forms, such as canon, fugue, rondo and counterpoint. Song by song, 21 in all, he sinks you in a decaying swamp, if not a graveyard. So yes, Holocene, sure, but Holocene on Halloween.

“Circle Mirror Transformation,” Artists Repertory Theatre: I walked into this play completely unprepared, which I hate to do, because almost invariably, the more I know about a work of art before I go in, the more I get out of it while I’m there. OK, not completely unprepared because I knew Harper was in it, and I’m a fan of both her acting and directing. And I’ve seen Richard Elmore down at OSF for as long as I’ve been making the trip to Ashland, I think. I’d loved Val Landrum in “The Cherry Orchard” (she won a Drammy Award for her work), and with director Allen Nause at the helm, I was reasonably confident that good things would happen, even though I didn’t know a thing about the script.

So yes, I was two-for-two, because “Circle Mirror Transformation” has lots of fun as it gently teases the conventions of theater and examines the lives of its five characters. It’s built loosely around a six-class theater workshop in a small town in Vermont. The town is so small that James (Elmore), the husband of the instructor Marty (Harper), is in the class.

Theresa (Landrum) is the vivacious femme fatale of the piece, a newcomer to town from New York, who has broken up with her long-time boyfriend. Look out, boys! And sure enough, Schultz (James Glick) falls early and he falls hard. Of course, he’s the kind of guy who still wears his wedding ring a year after the divorce became final. And then there’s Lauren (Danielle Purdy), 16 and struggling with a difficult family life, and so very inward despite her desire to be an actress.

Stuff happens offstage between the six classes, of course. Lives are lived, often badly or at least unhappily, and those tensions pop up in class, though Marty is the kindest possible teacher as she leads her charges through various acting exercises.  And those exercises gradually dig deeper into the students and Marty herself, because that’s part of what acting is, yes? Developing greater self-awareness and awareness of those around you?  I think so.

And let’s face it. Our raw desire can be pretty funny when it isn’t unbearably sad. And yeah, one of the laws of the jungle is that guys like Schultz are going to get punished for falling for women like Theresa. Not to mention James. One of my favorite moments in the show was how startled and horrified Lauren looks when the adult wallowing and roiling hits a climax. Dear Lauren, take a lesson!

I enjoyed fitting the fragments of “Circle Mirror Transformation” together. And it’s not like the pieces go together neatly at the end, either.


This post first appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Arts&Life page.

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