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Theater Review

'Circle' Revolves Around Fall of Wall

1989 Berlin is the setting for playwright Mee's chaotic, comic romp through history.

May 27, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

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.

* "The Berlin Circle," Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends June 25. $15-$25. (213) 381-7118. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Megan Mullally: Pamela Dalrymple

John Fleck: Heiner Muller

Colleen Kane: Dulle Griet

Lauren Campedelli: Christa

Tom Fitzpatrick: Erich Honecker

Nick Offerman: Werner

Steven M. Porter: Hermann

Larry Cox: Narrator

David Bickford: Warren

Written by Charles L. Mee. Directed by David Schweizer. Scenic design by Jason Adams and Alicia Hoge. Costumes by Holly Poe Durbin. Lighting by Rand Ryan. Sound by John Zalewski. Choreography by Ken Roht. Stage manager Beth Beecham.

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