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Impressive Performances

Invisible Theatre takes us inside an acting class, while the Rogue takes us back to 1920s Mississippi

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When the lights go up, we see several folks lying still on the floor of what seems to be a classroom of some sort.

"One," we hear.

"Two," says another.

"Three," comes next.

Then we hear "four" in stereo, uttered by two folks at the same time.

The others manage a collective groan. They must start again. "One."

If you've never taken an introductory acting class, this may seem strange. For those of us who have been down that road, we recognize this immediately as an exercise devised to grow feelings of connection and unity with our classmates—essential qualities needed by actors—by sensing when another will speak. There are no visual cues or other ways by which we can anticipate actions or words from another. We find our way by listening to the silence, the breathing, by being present.

It doesn't require a huge leap to realize this is a worthy goal in just about any arena.

Circle Mirror Transformation is a strange and intriguing play by Annie Baker. Under the direction of Betsy Kruse Craig, the Invisible Theatre offers us a solid rendering of the piece. (The title refers to another acting exercise.)

The play unfolds in about 20 or so short scenes, each flashes of the acting classes the small group has signed on for at a community center in Vermont. The effect of these brief scenes is a rhythm that makes the piece static and staccato at the same time. The play is untraditional in that there is no real conflict that drives the action—conflict that usually gives a play a sense of complication and resolution, in which we identify with characters and become engaged with them.

Baker's piece gives us mere glimpses of interactions. There are flashes of a teenager's impatience, a romantic liaison, marital woes. But even these are not really the substance of the piece. They are the byproducts of a group of strangers interacting in ways that often take them out of their comfort zones. It's an economical—and compelling—way of letting the story unfold.

Are these peeks enough to make a play? I think so. They are carefully chosen and skillfully crafted. The five actors who portray the students embody them with enough thoughtfulness and depth that we get to know enough about them to care for them. Molly McKasson (absent too long from Tucson stages), James Henriksen, Brian Wees, Carrie Hill and Lucille Petty are a fine ensemble.

The production's design components are impressive. Special mention goes to sound designer Gail Fitzhugh, who realized that with so many scene changes, the music that leads us from one moment to another is really like another character. Fitzhugh has created this presence with just the right feel and effect.

A couple of miles away, at the Rogue Theatre, another intriguing piece is being staged. It's an adaptation of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, and director Joseph McGrath has tackled this complicated, dense project with ingenuity, insight and a cast that courageously embraces the demands of the piece.

Faulkner's novel is a sprawling, convoluted story of the dirt-poor Bundren family in rural Mississippi in the 1920s. Matriarch Addie is dying, and her family is preparing for her imminent demise. Her husband, Anse (David Greenwood), is an odd, selfish and beaten-down man; one of her sons, Cash (Matt Walley), is building her coffin right outside the room where she is dying. Sons Jewel (Christopher Johnson) and Darl (Matt Bowdren) feud constantly; youngest son Vardaman (Andrew Garrett) struggles to understand death; and teenage daughter Dewey Dell (Dylan Page) is unwed and secretly pregnant. The bulk of the action involves the family taking Addie's body to be buried where she wanted, and the complications that result from their undertaking.

Adaptations are complicated things, because each artistic medium is unique. In fact, the more effective an artist has been at utilizing the medium in which a work has been conceived and executed, the more likely that work is to suffer in trying to find effectiveness in another.

If you can bend from being a purist in these matters, Annette Martin's adaptation is a good one. Rogue's production is an example of what's known as chamber theater, a style that usually takes a work of literary fiction and gives it legs. The story is re-envisioned as theater, although actors often take on the role of narrators. The hope is not just to provide the sense of the story, but to present the word craft of the author as well.

Attempting to apply the chamber-theater concept to a work like Faulkner's is challenging, because the novel itself is challenging. It has 15 different narrators; it time-travels; it has the dead speaking. The troupe tries to sort this all out for us. Characters narrate and take part in the action, moving back and forth seamlessly. McGrath's use of a minimal set, pantomimed action that often feels like choreography, wonderful live music, and great sound effects help make this a captivating experience.

Still, the nature of the beast here dictates that the unfolding often tells what we need to know, rather than shows us, which violates the first commandment in the playwright's bible. That means that we sometimes get truncated versions of Faulkner's story and his characters, and our ability to grasp why they are the way they are suffers. But the Rogue ensures that we do get a rich theatrical experience as the actors deliver Faulkner's wonderful words. (Some of those words are often lost, though, because of volume and diction, and the show is about 15 minutes too long.)

A woman sitting next to me asked at intermission, "Well, what do you think?" I paused and turned the question on her. "What do you think?" She thought a moment and then said, "I'm glad I'm here."

That would be my judgment as well.

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