The last time we saw a Pangdemonium production, it was one that revolved around a paedophile-murderer. But as powerful a piece of theatre as Frozen was, we’re also grateful to be able to sit back and let the laughter ripple through our bellies at their current show, American playwright Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation. It is, of course, a very different kind of play – nobody dies, for starters – but the performance is no less impressive, and beautifully demonstrates just how versatile the company is.
Here, we’re taken to an acting class at a community centre in Vermont, America, led by a kind, hippie lady called Marty (Neo Swee Lin). We join her four students as they embark on a six-week course, and get to know them as they get to know each other: the recently divorced carpenter Schultz (Adrian Pang), recently single actress Theresa (Nikki Muller), moody high schooler Lauren (Selma Alkaff), and Marty’s happy-go-lucky husband, James (Daniel Jenkins). Plenty of hilarity ensues as they start playing acting games like conveying meaning using only varying tones of one word, or reconstructing someone’s childhood bedroom by taking on the role of furniture and trees. In between the laughs, however, the cracks in each of their lives start to show through.
That helps to breathe a third dimensional backstory into the characters, and the cast is more than capable to take them on. All five of them embodied their roles with such ease and naturalness that it almost feels like the play was written specifically for these actors. From the awkward shyness they felt during the first week of class to the unspoken bond that had formed between them by the sixth week, they brought the whole spectrum of emotions to life. Pang, as usual, has his comedic timing down pat, while Muller encapsulates the confident woman with deep trust issues brilliantly. The old-couple chemistry between Neo and Jenkins is great to watch, and we could hardly tell that it’s Alkaff professional stage debut with her stellar performance as the emo, but ultimately lovely, Lauren.
The only problem we have with it is that we’re left wishing that the script had given the actors more to work with. By the end, we’re just getting to understand the weight of their baggage – all of them are complicated, and some hint at very dark things indeed – but they’re never explained fully enough to really make an impact, or a point. We’re unsure what the take away is after all the revelation, which is a shame as the characters are so fascinating and intricately developed. Yes, we appreciate the open ending, but we would have loved for the plot to let us delve deeper into the characters’ personal worlds – worlds that the cast clearly invested a lot of time in fleshing out during rehearsal.
Acting aside, Wong Chee Wai’s simple set is functional, but it’s strongest when combined with James Tan’s lighting and Brian Gothong Tan’s multimedia design in the final scene. We also never get to find out much about the American life outside the acting class, and Pangdemonium wisely didn’t make an attempt to localise it – they never do – but perhaps that’s not the point of the play, because ultimately it’s more about what it means to be human, regardless of where you are. So go, and laugh, and appreciate the dialogue and the sheer prowess of the actors. The show runs on for an hour and a half and there’s no intermission, but don’t worry, you’ll be in very good company.