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History With a Head and Heart

Just the facts aren't enough for Charles L. Mee Jr., creator of 'Berlin Circle.' He wants his work to reflect his own passions.

May 14, 2000|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

History, said Voltaire, "is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes." James Joyce described it as "a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." To Augustine Birrell, it was "that great dust heap," and to Napoleon I, "a fraud agreed upon." Henry Ford once quipped that "history is more or less bunk."

As their words suggest, vastly different men of various epochs have recognized the power and the problematic nature of the chronicles we keep. Far more than an objective record of events, history is the tale a culture tells itself about itself. And playwright Charles L. Mee Jr. knows this well.

Highly regarded as a provocative cultural and political historian, Mee has written books that include "Rembrandt's Portrait: A Biography" and "Playing God," the latter of which explores seven occasions in which political leaders made decisions that altered the course of world events. More recently, he completed "A Nearly Normal Life," his memoir of growing up with polio in the 1950s, involuntarily estranged from a society with great esteem for conformity.

Yet Mee began his career intending to write for the stage. He just got sidetracked--for more than two decades. Mee returned to writing for the boards in the mid-1980s and has since established himself as one of American theater's most inventive writers.

Although he retains a passion for the past, theatrical fiction is now Mee's preferred mode. "A nonfiction description leaves out the warring passions which you're not allowed to have as a diplomatic historian," says Mee, 61, speaking by phone from his home in Brooklyn. "That's why theater feels more like the real world to me, because it does incorporate your heart and your feelings as well as your head."

He has not left history behind, however. One of the recurring motifs in Mee's writing for the stage is the reexamination of events and texts of the past. He has reworked such Greek dramas as "The Trojan Women," "Agamemnon," "The Bacchae" and "Orestes."

Mee's most recent success, "Big Love," is a retooling of what is probably the oldest extant Greek play--Aeschylus' "The Suppliant Women." Writing about the work's premiere this March at the 24th Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., The Times' Michael Phillips called "Big Love" the festival's "most striking offering." The play is set for production at several major regional theaters during the next two years, including an engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December 2001.

But Mee's adaptations are not limited to the Greeks. "Time to Burn" was his version of Gorky's "The Lower Depths." And Mee's "The Berlin Circle" is loosely based on Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle." The 1999 comedy receives its West Coast premiere Saturday as the inaugural production of the Evidence Room's new facility, a 6,000-square-foot converted warehouse in the Temple-Beverly area near downtown. Directed by David Schweizer, the play stars John Fleck, one of the so-called NEA Four, and Megan Mullally of television's "Will & Grace."


Set in 1989 on the night the Berlin Wall comes tumbling down, "The Berlin Circle" takes the classic Solomon story of a baby caught between two potential mothers and transforms it into a heterogeneous vaudeville. In the Mee version, the child is the offspring of communist leader Erich Honecker, head of the German Democratic Republic from 1971 to 1989. Honecker and his wife are attending a performance by the Berliner Ensemble on the night students storm into the theater proclaiming the upheaval. In the rush to escape, they leave behind their baby, who winds up in the hands of a Pamela Harriman-like American socialite and her punk au pair. This odd trio then embarks on an odyssey through the streets, eventually wending their way to a custody trial in which the presiding judge is none other than avant-garde writer Heiner Muller.

To say Mee's play is postmodern is an understatement, but the eclectic style reflects his view of today's global culture. "I think that this play contains how the world is today," the playwright says, "and by that I mean it's a picture of America in the world."

"Chuck Mee's 'Berlin Circle' is my absolute favorite kind of play--a deadly serious romp," says director Schweizer, who first worked with Mee 15 years ago when he staged the New York Theatre Workshop premiere of "The Investigation of the Murder in El Salvador" and who also staged Mee's "Orestes" at the Actors' Gang in 1994. "I love a play that meditates on something critical to the world and does so in a playful and unpredictable theatrical way.

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