Brechtmachine

Photo by Cassidy C. Harrison

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. Günter 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 Müller (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 ã government arts funding to Müller, 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 Müller, 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 Müller 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 Müller 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, Müller 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 Müller. 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 and 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, Müller’s 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. Müller’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.

THE BERLIN CIRCLE | By CHARLES L. MEE At the EVIDENCE ROOM, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Echo Park | Through June 25


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