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THEATER REVIEW

Commercial exploitation rides herd in `Berlin Blues'

A satirical swipe at globalization pits theme-park planners against tribal culture.

March 08, 2007|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

THE way of the Ojibway detours into German theme-park territory in "The Berlin Blues," part of the Native Voices at the Autry series at Autry National Center. Drew Hayden Taylor's wacky slap at globalization is nothing if not good-natured in its broadly resolute shenanigans.

Intended as comic cautionary about commercial exploitation of indigenous cultures, "The Berlin Blues" draws its riffs with a blunt-tipped felt marker. Welcome to Otter Lake, home to an Ojibway Reserve in Eastern Ontario, where expert blues guitarist Bernie Pearl supplies atmosphere at one side of the stage.

After corporate shills Birgit (Ellen Dostal) and Reinhart (Michael Matthys) offer $75 million for the rights to create "Ojibway World," shortsighted Donalda (Adeye Sahran) persuades the tribe to sign up, and mayhem descends. Andrew (Gil Bermingham), the area cop, finds himself at odds with girlfriend Angie (DeLanna Studi), an incipient activist.

Then, there's mullet-haired Trailer (crowd favorite Robert Vestal), nicknamed after the family domicile that dominates Susan Scharpf's effective set design. This benign slacker gradually loosens his long-standing crush on Donalda as Birgit transforms him into an "Entourage"-style smoothie, or at least a parody of one. Hired as entertainment director, Trailer pursues his dream project: "Dances With Wolves: The Musical!"

Complications include crossed romantic wires, a bird-threatening dream catcher made of lasers, grass-roots pickets and stampeding union buffaloes. All leads to a collision between the natural order and Wal-Mart-styled operations. It's not hard to foresee which side comes out with its integrity relatively intact.

At certain moments -- Trailer's caterwauling "Ballad of John Dunbar," the gonzo group "Lakota Song" -- director Randy Reinholz and his game players approach something like loopy charm. However, even brazen satire needs a base of substance to land its points. Regrettably, that doesn't happen here.

Caricatured attitudes replace characters, with the Germans particularly outsized, and larger comment remains untapped. The script abounds with inside riffs that require immediate (and joke-deflating) explanation and collegiate groaners that underscore the missed opportunities.

Conceivably, its spirited cast and TV tactics will ensure "The Berlin Blues" audiences, with obvious appeal for Native Americans. Yet, though harmless, the wildly variable humor and ephemeral bite mainly suggests a socially conscious industrial show.

*

`The Berlin Blues'

Where: Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. No 2 p.m. show on March 24.

Ends: March 25

Price: $25

Contact: (866) 468-3399; (323) 667-2000, Ext. 354, or www.ticketweb.com

Running time: 2 hours

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