EVIDENCE ROOM PRESENTS
Cast (in order of appearance)
Narrator - Larry Cox
Director - David Schweizer
Producer - Bart DeLorenzo
Stage Manager - Beth Mack
Graphic Design - Colleen Wainwright
May 11 - July 7, 2000
Above: Steven M. Porter (Hermann) and Nick Offerman (Werner)
The Wedding Feast
David Bickford (Warren) and Megan Mullally (Pamela)
Los Angeles Times
Most history plays deny the pure messiness of history in the making, settling instead on trim summaries and facile judgment. Charles L. Mee wants the chaos. Working in a theatrical collage format, splattering material from ancient texts on top of recent newsmakers, the historian-turned-playwright takes "the materials of the real world," as he said recently, "and [renders] them as hallucination."Staged aggressively and well, Mee’s works love being on a stage. They’re sponges, waiting for water. That’s clear in the Evidence Room production of The Berlin Circle, in which Mee sends a 14th century Chinese myth – the one Bertolt Brecht swiped for his parable The Caucasian Chalk Circle – flying straight into the Berlin Wall in 1989. Just in time to see it crumble. The new, excellent and spacious Evidence Room theater is located on Beverly Boulevard in the Temple-Beverly neighborhood near downtown, across from the Brooklyn Bagel Bakery. The theater’s acoustics aren’t the world's finest. But the deep and high playing space will work wonderfully for all kinds of theatrical adventures. Director David Schweizer’s teeming, romper-stomper production of The Berlin Circle, featuring savvy turns from Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) and John Fleck, cuts the ribbon on this thing in style. The new century seems to agree with Mee, and his theater profile has never been higher. To be sure, for years major avant-garde directors have championed Mee’s combustible adaptations of Greek tragedies, among other works. But in the 1980s and in much of the ’90s, you were far more likely to catch a Mee play at, say, the Actors’ Gang or San Diego’s Sledgehammer Theatre than Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Lately, a change. Steppenwolf commissioned The Berlin Circle. The play went on to American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., earlier this year. About the same time, Mee’s Big Love made a big noise at the Humana Festival in Louisville, and it’s scheduled for various top-flight regional productions. Working from more sprawling source materials and myths, The Berlin Circle is not surprisingly a more sprawling work than Big Love. It’s a typically messy, often inspired comedy of political transitions. It begins at the Brecht-founded Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin, in the middle of a command performance attended by German Democratic Republic head Erich Honecker (Tom Fitzpatrick) and cronies. They’re not happy with the political content of the faux-Chinese parable they see, as staged by playwright-director Heiner Muller (Fleck, sporting the right Euro-trash eye wear). Things are wild outside the theater; the wall has come down; crowds scurry everywhere. Honecker and his wife, Christa (Lauren Campedelli), flee, leaving their baby behind in the arms of a tourist, Manhattan socialite Pamela Dalrymple (Mullally, whose witty Eastern lockjaw dialect suggests Cherry Jones doing Katharine Hepburn). Pamela and her hastily employed au pair, Dulle Griet (Colleen Kane, excellent), take off with the baby, pursued by a Two Stooges pair of East Germans (Nick Offerman and Steven M. Porter, a fine comedy team with a hint of menace). Whereas Brecht’s Chalk Circle had two mothers fighting for custody of the infant, in the climactic trial scene, Mee has three: Christa, Pamela and Dulle Griet. The number three resounds throughout this play. At one point a Mee character prays to "find a third way, neither communism nor capitalism/but a third way/some middle ground to get rich, like in the West/and to share like in the East." The choice offered East Berliners, free but broke, "should not be our only choice." Mullally glides through the chaos like a Jackie O dream. She’s an actress whose oddball comic touch and incomparably deadly timing I enjoyed long before she hit as Karen on Will & Grace. Here she’s surreally poised and chipper, given the circumstances. Fleck’s long, anguished confessionals as Muller are nicely varied and energized. Kane is an utterly unique presence, stout and earthy, but ineffably sweet. As in most Mee plays, The Berlin Circle sometimes gets snagged on its own footnotes, its detours and historical details. It also takes time out for a couple of full-on musical numbers: "YMCA" (overfamiliar by now) and, in German, "All You Need Is Love." Director Schweizer’s final image is one of his best, that of the baby, at last in the arms of the "true" mother. Around them, though, swells a crowd of grasping hands. History won't stay still. The third way beckons.
– Michael Phillips
The Cold War’s most notorious symbol, the Berlin Wall, was a forbidding monument to realpolitik that seemed to have been built with the cement and stone left over from Dachau. Yet, when Der Mauer ceased to cast its chilling shadow on November 9, 1989, the actions that brought about its dismantling were strangely anticlimactic – triggered, as they were, by the rhetorical slip of an East German bureaucrat’s tongue during a news conference rather than by any exertion of popular will. Americans had envisioned something a little more – well, a little more heroic, something on a Wagnerian scale of spectacle that befitted a continent where politics is theater and theater is politics. Gunter Schabowski’s blunder in announcing the Wall’s opening (it wouldn’t actually be torn down until 1990), and its most immediate effect – a wild shopping spree by East Berliners – was a dramaturgical rug-puller that would have, no doubt, appealed to Bertolt Brecht’s anti-theatrical sensibilities, if not to his politics. How fitting, then, that The Berlin Circle, Charles L. Mee’s updated take on Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, opens with the breaching of the Berlin Wall during a performance by the Marxist playwright’s very own Berliner Ensemble.Here we find a group of actors portraying Chinese communists, attired in pastel-colored Mao suits, being suckered into a business deal by a sweet-talking American cowboy/ entrepreneur. This play within the play may well be a cynical shrug at the way of the modern world, given that its author is Heiner Muller (John Fleck), the coldly intellectual playwright and Brecht’s successor as the Ensemble’s artistic director. He quickly finds himself under fire from Erich Honecker (Tom Fitzpatrick), the East German party boss who doesn’t know much about art but recognizes a piece of petty-bourgeois subjective idealism when he sees it. Just as Honecker is apoplectically arguing the finer points of government arts funding to Muller, news arrives that the Wall is being torn down by Berliners intoxicated with a new sense of freedom. Honecker and his entourage exit stage left, as it were, disguised in silly costumes, but not before Honecker’s mistress, Christa (Lauren Campedelli), hands off their infant offspring – "Karl Marx" – to American socialite Pamela Dalrymple (Megan Mullally). Pamela, while freely offering upper-crust advice to everyone in earshot, turns out not to be the mothering type. She is, rather, a Chanel-pampered jet setter who has her sights on pilfering the Grecian inventories of Communist museums and marrying an American business tycoon named Warren (David Bickford). Suddenly stuck with baby baggage, she does what comes naturally to any American and hires someone else to take care of the kid, a woman named – after the subject of Brueghel’s painting – Dulle Griet (Colleen Kane). The two flee town, then return, with a pair of bumbling soldiers (Nick Offerman and Steven M. Porter) always in clownish pursuit to retrieve Honecker’s love child. By play’s end a discredited Muller, of all people, must judge who gets custody of little Karl – Pamela, Dulle Griet or Christa. If you’ve forgotten, up to this point, the parallel to Brecht’s play, it all comes back into focus when Muller orders that chalk circle drawn on the floor and the child is placed in its center. The Berlin Circle is historical vaudeville where real-life characters rub shoulders with characters modeled after historical and mythological figures, for while Muller and Honecker certainly existed, Mee’s Pamela and Warren are stand-ins for Pamela Harriman and Warren Buffett. Are they faithful to these personages? Mercifully, not very. At least, as far as we know, Muller did not go about his theater work in vomit-caked shirts, nor was the Stalinist puritan Honecker likely to have the kind of hoochy mistress represented by Christa. (For that matter, the real Honecker had been removed from power before the Wall fell.) And, if nothing else, Pamela Harriman was a good 38 years older than the actress playing her at the Evidence Room. In other words, Mee has draped the skins of real-life legends over an assortment of daffy creations who sometimes incorporate historical and literary quotations into the dialogue (Nixon’s "I could do that – but it would be wrong" and Brecht’s own "Man is man," for example). The result is a raucous evening of theater and a brave one at that, considering the japes that playwright Mee aims at his own beloved Brecht and Muller. The Evidence Room group needed a cherry bomb of a premiere to inaugurate its new space, and director David Schweizer has obliged with a provocative production that is part political travelogue, part stage-effects extravaganza. Aided by such trusted collaborators as Rand Ryan (lights), Jason Adams and Alicia Hoge (set) and Ken Roht (choreography), Schweizer gives us moments that effortlessly – and literally – hinge from setting to setting, and an ominous rope bridge that poses one of the play’s big challenges to Pamela and Dulle, and their pursuers. Despite the large cast and a charming supporting performance by Fleck, the show belongs to Mullally. The Will & Grace co-star walks off with most of the laughs as her wealthy cosmopolitan character blithely applies the wisdom and shopping mores of Park Avenue to whatever sordid situation she and Dulle Griet encounter. Indeed, Mee so tilts the play’s decisions and dialogue toward Pamela that it’s hard to imagine her as ever being played unsympathetically. Mee’s play and Schweizer’s production, however, slump in the excessive duration of the speeches and in the overdone slapstick of the comedy, as though Mee fears that someone in the audience may have missed a point. The early moment when the Berliner Ensemble and insurgent students break into a dance production number powered by the Village People’s "YMCA" is clever and unexpected – but do we really have to sit through the entire song? And, on at least two occasions, he gives Dulle Griet heaping mouthfuls of sentimental mush to chew on – just so it can all be dismissed by Pamela’s quips. Likewise, Mullerís big speech apologizing for his languid cooperation with East Germany’s secret police may be snappy and, as delivered by Fleck, coy enough to make us ignore the fact that the needles on our bullshit detectors are spinning off their dials. (His defense has more than a whiff of Nuremberg about it.) But in the end, it really is a big speech. George Orwell once pointed out the self-delusionary tone of a rumor – spread among Britain’s left – that a Kremlin team of historians was secretly compiling a truly objective history of the Soviet Union, a record that would admit the regime’s mistakes and atrocities, and that would be released publicly sometime in the future, when the USSR was more politically secure. Muller’s post-Wall apologia in The Berlin Circle hardly sets the record straight about East Germany, but it does reveal the role of the conflicted artist in a modern police state. In the end, the Brecht lines that best capture the current conditions of the now-forgotten and very needy East Germans are perhaps not found in The Caucasian Chalk Circle but in The Threepenny Opera: For the ones they are in darkness
And the others are in light.
And you see the ones in brightness
Those in darkness drop from sight.
– Steven Mikulan