A group of unlikely strangers are drawn together to attend a six-week drama class, set in a community center in small-town Vermont” is how the website of Adobe Rose Theatre describes the company’s current production, Circle Mirror Transformation, by the American playwright Annie Baker. The play earned plaudits when it ran Off-Broadway in 2009, and Baker went on to win the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for an ensuing play. And yet, one worried that a theater piece about an acting class might get caught up in navel-gazing. The opening scene, in fact, has the five characters lying in a circle onstage calling out ascending numbers; any of them may say the next number at any time, and the object is for each to sense the group’s energy so that their utterances don’t overlap. This exercise returns several times in the course of the play’s 31 short scenes, and you wouldn’t imagine that it would qualify as compelling spectator sport. But it does, in its unassuming way, mirroring the vicissitudes of the five participants and the intersection of their marriages, romances, contentments, frustrations, and aspirations.
The action unrolls through six of the class’s weekly meetings, with illuminated script captions above the bare-bones stage — “Week One,” “Week Two,” and so on — reminding viewers of where they are in the chronology. The action sometimes seems to proceed in rather arbitrary fashion, reflecting the extemporized nature of the actors’ exercises, which include quite a few apart from the “counting game.” In the early weeks, the teacher and her four charges (two men, two women of different ages) are getting their bearings, but by Weeks Four and Five the experience has entered the territory of drama-class-as-therapy, with various revelations (explicit or implied) sending some of the characters into tailspins. The narrative enters its weakest stretches here, particularly in the earnest “sharing exercises” of Week Five and the attendant revelation of predictable victimhood. By the end of the class, all the participants end up in a different place from where they started, and a clever epilogue, set ten years in the future, reveals that the class had been a useful point of departure for five life journeys.
Wendy Chapin directs a carefully molded performance that appropriately conveys a spirit of quintessence, a sense that nothing extraneous needs to be imposed on what Baker has already put forth. In a director’s note in the program, she writes of the specific lengths of silences that pepper the play, a topic Baker has often been asked to address in interviews. These precisely timed fissures may seem more salient on the page than on the stage. In any case, such pauses seemed neither uncomfortably long nor unreasonably frequent in the performance I saw on March 26.
The five accomplished actors form a nicely attuned ensemble: Lynn Goodwin as the teacher and, as the students, Todd Anderson, Kent Kirkpatrick, Maureen Joyce McKenna, and Marika Sayers. As a group, they emit various degrees of hope, doubt, randiness, and exhaustion. Goodwin holds up her leadership position with élan, an artistic soul to the core, certain in her direction until suddenly she isn’t. A particularly endearing performance comes from Sayers, a sixteen-year-old actress who, one assumes, has a fine career ahead of her. Hers is an ingratiating part, and of the bunch she is the character we witness in the greatest transformation. The costumes, by Jasminka Jesic, are perfectly on target, but in the case of Sayers they do much to support her gentle transition from caterpillar to butterfly.
Over the years, the annual Holy Week concerts of the Santa Fe Pro Musica Baroque Ensemble have zeroed in on a formula that doesn’t rattle any cages. The most imposing piece in this year’s installment was the opening item, Bach’s “Orchestral Suite” No. 2 in B minor, with flutist Carol Redman extracting a warm tone from her 18th-century-style instrument and playing with the solid musical logic audiences have grown to expect from her. It was a rather solemn interpretation on the whole, with even the concluding Badinerie on the slow side, and tempos pulled apart a bit in the Sarabande and Bourrées at the March 25 concert at Loretto Chapel. The remainder of the ensemble— violinists Stephen Redfield and Karen Clarke, violist Gail Robertson, cellist Sally Guenther, and organist David Solem — sailed through rough waters when it came to intonation, matters being exacerbated by the facts that the cello and organ double the bass line (which leaves no room for inaccuracy) and that the violins often eschewed vibrato (which might otherwise veil transgressions). A trio sonata by the Venetian Tomaso Albinoni traded in predictable phrases; but it was cast in a style we are more likely to associate with the Roman composer Arcangelo Corelli, which meant Albinoni’s piece was still a bit of a surprise. I don’t know what went on during intermission, but when the players returned for the second half, their tuning had fallen into place and they sounded understandably happier in their music making.
Among the most immediately lovable pieces of the late Baroque are obbligato arias, a hybrid of vocal aria and instrumental trio sonata in which a solo singer is partnered by a featured instrumental soloist. Kathryn Mueller lent her sweet, cheerful soprano to an aria from Bach’s Cantata No. 171, with violinist Redfield as her precise co-soloist. The two were also spotlighted in a winning performance of “Meine Seele hört im Sehen,” one of Handel’s “Nine German Arias”; Redfield brought sharply sculpted articulation to the task as Mueller added her unfussy, natural-sounding voice, which was beautifully suited to the Georgian sentiments of the text. Mezzo-soprano Deborah Domanski was the soloist in Handel’s aria “Vacillò, per terror del primo errore,” from one of his Italian cantatas, her accurate fioratura making a firm case even for a piece that must be acknowledged as second-tier Handel. The two singers blended elegantly in three Handel duets — fine pieces all — and the instrumentalists gave a rousing rendition of the familiar “Pastoral Symphony” from Messiah and a chaconne from his opera Il pastor fido.
The concert Ailyn Pérez gave at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on March 29 was another that waited until its second half to fully find its bearings. The soprano appeared uncomfortable before intermission, and one imagined that she was affected by the poor quality of the city’s air on a day when winds whipped up something close to a dust storm at the height of the pollen season. Her opening set, comprising five songs by Schubert, was distinguished principally by lovely playing from Gary Matthewman, the evening’s pianist. His balanced touch brought elegant shading to the murmuring 16th-notes of “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and his incisive attacks added drama to “Die junge Nonne” — but not enough to obscure how distant Schubert lay from the sensibilities of the soprano, who scooped into pitches, lunged brusquely at high notes, and never harnessed the power of German consonants. Fauré’s three-song set Poème d’un jour fared not much better, with a disruption in Pérez’s vocal alignment threatening the very existence of the last note of one of the songs. A group of seven encore-level songs by Fernando Obradors benefited from expressive Spanish diction, complete with charming “Castilian whistles” on the letter “s,” but even a tender chestnut like “Del cabello más sutil” was not really caressed in this performance.
The voice settled in more happily for the second half, glowing luxuriously and even with a measure of sweetness when not at high volume. Even here, I found that the occasional combination of loud dynamics and high pitches — say, F and above — could yield an unpleasant effect in what is a rather intimate theater. Not always, though; at the end of the song “Cantares” in Joaquín Turina’s Poema en forma de canciones, for example, she spun out a high A that was nicely covered and neatly modulated even at full throttle. Generally underrepresented in the recital scene, Turina’s set is a fascinating find at the edge of the repertoire. It begins with an extended piano prelude, a good three minutes long, which Matthewman rendered with refined exoticism. Pérez, whose parents came to the United States from Mexico, delivered this set with gusto, as she did Falla’s ever-popular Siete canciones populares españolas, performing these elusive Spanish songs with more assurance than many American singers do. Another highlight of the concert was a group of songs by Reynaldo Hahn, a Venezuelan whose family emigrated to France when he was a child. Singing in French works well for Pérez, its somewhat closed nasality helping keep in check a tendency to slip into an overly bright timbre. Some of the evening’s best singing arrived in her second encore, the one-time pop classic “Bésame mucho” by the Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez. One usually thinks of it as an offhand bolero, but Pérez’s sultry interpretation underscored its artistic possibilities.
The concert, which was presented by Santa Fe Desert Chorale, obviously pleased the modestly sized audience, which clapped vigorously after every number in the first half (and even in the middle of some pieces), flouting the request to the contrary that was printed in the program. After intermission, Pérez begged listeners to hold their applause until the end of each set, which they mostly did. I should clarify that my own tempered enthusiasm relates less to Pérez’s voice than to her achievement as a lieder singer. The art of the song — and of the song recital — is distinct from the art of opera, demanding constant reinvention of vocal personality within a short span as opposed to the more extended effect on which opera soars. At its best, it involves an exceptional integration of singer and pianist, of poetry and music, a collaboration that excavates the fusion of musical and literary elements and conveys it with flashes of momentary insight through detailed vocal inflection. In both the character of her voice and the nature of her singing, Pérez would seem to be more remarkable as an opera singer than as a lieder singer. I am looking forward to hearing her this summer in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at Santa Fe Opera, where I imagine her ample instrument and powerful projection will show to greater advantage than they did in a recital of miniatures at the Lensic. ◀