Sunday, March 24, 2013

Circle Mirror Transformation: At the Stardust Theater

Circle Mirror Transformation is awkwardly hilarious. That's my first and most prevalent thought throughout the show... the awkward interaction between the characters, long moments of uncomfortable silence, and the general feeling of discomfort when people simply don't seem able to communicate. The story revolves around a community acting class focused on the "touchy-feely" exercises on improvisation, self-revelatory monologues, and other similar activities designed to improve awareness and communication. The six week course is shown through a series of vignettes as the characters become caught up in the exercises and their personal relationships with one another.

The instructor is "Marty" (Judie Rogers Swartz), whose work has been focused on children's' classes but is finally able to bring her love of theater to adults with this new program. Constantly cheerful and optimistic, Marty attempts to convey that the participants are participating in important exercises in abstract theater. She is most heavily challenged by the groups youngest member, Lauren (Hannah Maurine Schmidt), whose attitude prevents her from seeing the purpose in many of the exercises being taught. Swartz brings several layers to the character of Marty and her cheerfulness is often pulled back to reveal a deep hurt, frustration, and even hope as events transpire.

Shane Dallmann is Marty's husband, James. Described as an "aging hippie", James is coerced into attending the class and doesn't seem to understand what the exercises are for. At first seeming like a gentle father-figure, James' history is revealed early in the play and we see the antagonistic nature of that history play out throughout the six week course. He is estranged from his daughter, struggling with his wife's constantly positive attitude, and struggling with his own failures to commit in on a professional or emotional level with the world around him for fear of becoming "like his father".

Theresa is a former actress who left her life and boyfriend in New York to find a quieter life in Vermont. Of all the participants, Theresa seems to fully embrace the abstract exercises and constantly seeks to "perform" at every opportunity. Tatum Tollner brings a lot of humor and a certain degree of "siren"-like to quality to the part as she seems to lure the attention of the groups' men.

The group is rounded by "Schultz", a recently divorced man reaching out for personal contact with the world around him. He is probably the most vulnerable member of the group, and Matthew T. Pavellas yanks back many rules on personal interaction to great comedic effect throughout the show. Shy, uncomfortable, and unaware of his own social missteps, Schultz was the character I found most easy to identify with and largely became the character I most liked.

"Are we going to be doing any real acting?" The petulant arm crossing and non-involvement from Lauren is probably the most important aspect of the show, a young girl who find herself watching and learning from the people around her. She often sits in a manner that seems so familiar, those awkward teenage years where people try to disappear into the background. She's almost always present throughout the show, watching and observing the characters and how they interact with one another. As the weeks go by, she becomes more involved and takes many of the lessons to heart. Hannah Maurine Schmidt was incredibly good with great body language to the events around her.

The shows awkward pacing is flat out brilliant for getting the most laughs from the audience, reveling in the uncomfortable silences between the characters and their body language. Director Renee Infelise should be given a huge round of applause for those large moments of silence. The sparse setting, with a mirror along one wall and a large rubber ball that moves throughout the show allows the characters to play with wide empty spaces and effectively build and take apart those invisible walls everyone constructs between themselves. Whether you've taken part in similar exercises before or not (and I have not, honestly) you will find familiar moments between the characters and the humor of communication.

Go see the show, which is currently playing at the Stardust Theater.

Warm Bodies


The commercialism of the “zombie” product is probably one of the most ironic statements in the direction of our society as a whole. The phenomena is a little strange, a little bizarre, and maybe a little rough for the hardcore fans who have been watching these movies for decades. I mean, you have Zombie Walks, one of the top rated shows on television is about zombies, and zombies are creeping into culture on nearly every level. The staggering success in movies, comics, books, video games, and television shows has given the Hollywood Machine a fairly standard addition to their rolling assembly line of cookie cutter garbage. Nothing else so summarily describes this cultural numbness than that of the movie “Warm Bodies”.

I don’t mean that in a negative way, either.

No other movie dares to expand the zombie mythos, no other movie shatters the paradigm, and no other movie better illustrates the utter ridiculousness of the success of zombie films as  much as “Warm Bodies”. And that is not to say that the film does all of this with any such intention. In fact, it may be with the complete lack of intent that the film makers managed to make such a ridiculously moronic blend of genres into such an entertaining bit of fluff that it acts as a parody to itself in every sense you may never expect. Many people saw this movie as the “Twilight” with zombies, other people saw it as “Romeo and Juliet” with zombies, and still others saw it as cheap popcorn trash. I think there’s something much more important going on here. 

Not only were all those opinions right on the money, but they all failed to truly recognize the piece of artistic genius this film may have unintentionally created. At the core point of the story we have a zombie named “R” who falls in love with a human girl. The story is told solely from the point of view of the zombie. Now, because we are being told a story from the point of view of the monster, we have got to already take some liberties with the zombie mythos from the very start… mainly, that zombies are capable of thought. Zombies are driven by more than just the deepest of hungers. Zombies are not monsters. And in that very important decision, the film makers have completely undermined the purpose and intent of the “zombie” as a creature, as a feared monstrosity, and they’ve dressed it up in cartoonish buffoonery for the core purpose of entertainment.

Once you accept that point, it’s easy to see why this film has to bend over backwards in order to get the PG-13 rating it so richly deserved. People don’t really get ripped apart in view of the camera, there aren’t too many real ‘scare’ moments, and what ‘horror’ there is occurs just out of view of the frame… even “R”’s devouring of brains looks more like a gelatinous mass he scoops into his mouth too quickly to really count as much of anything. The zombies aren’t really scary in any way. Rob Courdry is featured in the film as R’s “best friend”, M. He brings a lot of humor and genuine emotion to his zombie character and is probably the most well developed character the film, so it’s easy to like him and root for him when the conflicts reach their apex.

The movie is a film about zombies, and rather than showing them as only “near-human” creatures capable of life, there are a group of zombies who have rotted to near skeletons and abandoned all sense of humanity. The “bonies” are driven by hunger, hate the possibility of change with their near cousins, and seek to devour both humanity and “near”-humanity with equal relish. In point of fact, these cheap CGI creatures aren’t even the decaying mockeries of life afforded to Romero’s traditional creature. These are more Harry Hausen-like walking skeletons from the old Sinbad movies… choppy movements, constant leering grins, and a total lack of any real horror to be found in most zombie films.

Fans of Zombie movies aren’t going to find much to be impressed with in regards to “Warm Bodies” as an entry into their much-beloved genre… it’s teen-age soft-core horror at best, an amusing parody, and an unintended satire on the state of our society at this point in time. It’s a perversion of the core themes found in all the genre’s mixed into this little twisted salad… “Romeo And Juliet” is not a romance, it’s a tragedy. “Zombies” are not about misunderstood creatures that need a little love. And “Twilight” doesn’t come anywhere close to making the kind of unintended statement this movie actually seems to thrive on. The farcical concept of bringing humanity to monsters in a contrived Zombie Apocalypse seems to be a cringe inducing nightmare waiting to happen, but the movie never promises to be anything more than what it is. It delivers on what it promises and it sort of succeeds in not being too blatant of a slap to the face in doing so.

What I think a lot of zombie fans need to remember is that these are “fictional” creatures… before George Romero brought the ghouls to the screen, zombies were the result of a voodoo ritual in tropical island movies. Different film-makers have introduced various concepts… the fast zombie, disease zombie, demonic zombie, deadite zombie, brain-eaters, alien parasites, and on and on and on. The core point was that they were mobilized walking corpses that attacked humans for whatever reason. If someone wants to make a horror flick geared toward teenagers, let them have it. Not every teen-based horror film is a travesty to the genre incapable of entertaining in any way, shape, or form. And if this movie happens to be a little less insulting than many, it should be given an opportunity of some sort.

3 out of 5.