New Meets Old: Bus Stop & Circle Mirror Transformation
Circle Mirror Transformation begins at the Calderwood Pavillion this weekend, Bus Stop winds down its run over at the BU Theatre. I think I’m alone in this, but my favorite times during the season are when shows overlap, perhaps because there’s nothing sadder or spookier than a dark theatre. I especially love overlapping shows when there are dramaturgical connections between them. Given the contingencies of scheduling a season, this is often a purely serendipitous event, which makes it even more special.
I find there to be a lot of interplay between Bus Stop and Circle Mirror Transformation, both in their similarities and their differences. Both plays are ensemble dramas, are populated by rural Americans, find humor and pathos in the faltering interactions between flawed people, and both plays use an exceptionally intelligent teenage girl as a kind of bell weather figure.
What do the similarities tell us? We can see that while an ensemble drama does not concern itself primarily with family or love relationships, both plays contain elements of both. Grace is a mother figure to Elma and much of the plot concerns Beau’s courtship of Cherie. But also one sees that the sheriff, Will, and Beau’s companion, Virgil, join together to teach Beau how to be a complete man. In other words, they parent him. In the shadow of the Beau/Cherie love story, there is Professor Lyman’s tentative seduction of Elma. Similar alignments and misalignments occur in Circle Mirror Transformation.
And what do the difference tell us? Primarily we can see the evolution of storytelling techniques. For a play to be successful in the 50s there was an expectation of certain kinds of set-ups and pay-offs, a certain sense of decorum and there more patience for techniques like an off-stage fight being described for the audience by a witness (it was good enough for the Greeks too) and these are elements that will divide an audience (on both sides of the curtain). Some find Inge’s dramaturgy unbearably old-fashioned and some find them joyously comforting. I myself marvel at the skill and grace he employs in the service of a deeply humane (and dare I say it, proto-feminist) point of view. But if a young writer sent me a play written in the same style, I would find it too old-fashioned.
Circle Mirror Transformation on the other hand strips away rhetorical and dramaturgical embellishment. The play does not open with a “who, what, when, where and why” kind of scene. It starts in media res, or rather in media acting exercise. The class has started, introductions that we the audience are not privy to have been made. The audience will pick up all the information it needs to put together the story over the course of the evening. Inge’s characters are pretty articulate, but Baker’s characters are often tongue-tied, filling the air in their speech with pauses and stammers, the “ums” and “ahs” of everyday language. Inge puts it all out there, practically begging the audience to love the characters as much as he does; Baker is much more subtle and perhaps confident that a smart, patient, attentive audience can’t help but love her characters as much as she does.
Stephen Lee Anderson and Noah Bean in Bus Stop; Marie Polizzano, Michael Hammond, Jeremiah Kissel, Betsy Aidem, and Nadia Bowers in Circle Mirror Transformation, photos by T. Charles Erickson.