Theatre review: Circle Mirror Transformation reaffirms the weird and wonderful theatre

So very often, we want art to be Art with a capital A. That it must say something pertinent about social justice, or embrace the realm of high-brow entertainment. There is room enough in art for all these large aspirations - just as there is also room for the smallest of personal gestures, for an individual to have an intimate, quiet encounter with art that feels just as big.

This quirky little show about five community drama class misfits doesn't reach for any earth-shaking revelations about life. But here, in an empty studio with suspicious water stains close to the ceiling and the sort of bone-white fluorescent lighting that doesn't flatter, I am reminded that theatre, in its many strange and splendid forms, can be such a balm for the soul, a safe haven of sorts for anyone who walks into this space.

American playwright Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation is, indeed, rather circular in style. There is no real resolution, the characters aren't always likeable, and they do make some very silly decisions. In fact, each character fits a personality type that can just about be summarised in one sentence: gregarious pretty woman with a fragile interior (Nikki Muller as Theresa), snarky eye-rolling teen (Selma Alkaff as Lauren), tie-dyed hippie couple just a little too cute to be true (Neo Swee Lin as Marty and Daniel Jenkins as James), and awkward recent divorcee trying to get back in the game (Adrian Pang as Schultz). They have all enrolled into Marty's low-key and clearly low-budget drama class which involves less acting, more drama therapy.

But somehow over the course of a compressed six weeks, we warm to these characters, who start off as thin outlines but thankfully gain some weight along the way. Some of my near-forgotten memories of theatre classes also came back into sharp focus; we did, in fact, play some of those bewildering theatre games involving counting, strange actions, and head-scratching tableaux, games that similarly started out baffling but also corralled all of us into the same leaky boat, laughing and crying and sharing stories and, ultimately, connecting.

It is difficult to sketch out any character fully in a play that only allows you glimpses into their lives through short, humorously awkward conversations. This means that character development sometimes feels like Baker is getting character exposition out of the way, whether through an ice-breaker-type game where each participant introduces someone else and proceeds to over-share, or re-enactments from the characters' lives that surface infidelities, hidden hurts, secret bitternesses.

But while the scaffolding of the play is still visible, there is a charm to this quintet that will reel you in. Tracie Pang directs a well-cast, high-energy ensemble that lifts Baker's script beyond its edge of predictability: we know these characters will learn more about and then gradually warm to each other (or not), and that they will let go or grow in some way as they limber up and throw themselves into these bizarre and increasingly personal exercises, but still we root for them.

And even though Pangdemonium continues to struggle with calibrating ensemble accent work and getting that mix just right, this ensemble also does some truly excellent work with comic timing and a sure-footed rhythm. I think even those who are not privy to the strange inner workings of the rehearsal room will take to this endearing motley crew, sharing gleefully in their accidental slip-ups and impulsive confessions. The cast is supported by some quiet but magical design work, with filmmaker and media artist Brian Gothong Tan and set designer Wong Chee Wai pulling off an lovely multimedia intervention close to the end.

Why do we love the theatre? Is it because of how close it comes to the stage of real life, that we must struggle to differentiate between where the actor ends and the character begins? Teenage Lauren (Selma in a convincing debut) wonders aloud if they are going to do any "real acting" halfway through a seemingly silly counting game, and Marty gently reminds her that they have been acting all along, and learning to lay that ego aside and pay attention.

A single show - or theatre exercise - may not change our lives, but it certainly makes you take a good hard look in the mirror, that you might circle back one day and find yourself transformed.

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

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Where: DBS Arts Centre

When: Till Feb 15, Tues to Sat at 8pm, Sat and Sun at 3pm, Feb 15 at 3 and 8pm

Admission: $40 to $55 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.

Info: The show contains a prologue that starts ten minutes before the stated opening time (i.e. 2.50pm or 7.50pm)

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