Sunday, November 8, 2009

Up Against the Wall: Woolly Mammoth's Full Circle

Tomorrow is Europe's most celebrated 9/11: 9/11/1989. The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. (It's date then month on European calendars, so November 9 is 9/11.)

Theatergoers in Washington, DC have a special treat to celebrate -- a new production of Charles Mee's 1998 play, Full Circle. (First produce by Steppenwolf as "The Berlin Circle.")

Mee's play takes its starting point from the Chinese Yuan Dynasty-era play The Chalk Circle, which was the primary source (via the German poet Klabund) for Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle. But he manages to capture the chaos and uncertainties of post-Wende East Germany -- its shifting politics, the mad grasping toward capitalism as a solution, and the dark truths of collaboration and retribution in totalitarian societies.

Woolly's production of Full Circle is very strong and I unreservedly recommend it. The acting is bold, joyous and full of vigor. The decision by director Michael Rohd to break the play out of a traditional setting and use various corners and levels of Woolly's wonderfully modern space in downtown DC (including its lobbies and rehearsal space) is executed wonderfully. It was a smart and fun evening.

But what had me thinking the most after seeing the show on Friday was how skilfully Mee as a writer -- and, in his direction of this production, Rohd -- manages to echo and exploit the energy of German and American experiments in theater in the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the main characters in Full Circle is German writer and director Heiner Muller -- one of Brecht's intellectual heirs at the Berliner Ensemble and the author of influential plays including Die Hamletmaschine, Der Bau and Mauser. (Woolly Mammoth's artistic director Howard Shalwitz does a terrific Muller.)

Muller was a key figure in the tumult of German theatre in that era, with all the complexities and contradictions that fueled the ferment. It wasn't only the era of Muller, but the era of Peter Weiss (Marat/Sade and The Investigation), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Katzelmacher, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Bremen Freedom) and Peter Handke (Offending the Audience, Kaspar). It was time of energy and experiment, where big plays grappled with big history. With the exception of Mee and a few others (Tony Kushner comes to mind), it's a sort of theater that's out of favor in America today.

Tackling big issues in a big way invites the inevitable quibbles. I don't think Mee is totally fair to Muller in his portrayal of him as a symbol of GDR-collaboration. I also left the production feeling that if a playwright steps onto the land mine-ridden turf of Brecht, the twist and the payoff need to be as strong and vibrant as Brecht's subversions.

But Woolly's production of Full Circle is invaluable not only in how it reminds the audience of the vitality of this "epic theatre," but also the strengths of that form in breaking down complex historical and social issues and humanizing them. The exchange below between a husband and wife from Dresden in 1989, which Mee sets at a wedding banquet, is as wonderfully constructed a debate about the fallout from the Wall's sudden crumbling as one might wish for:

URSULA: Yes. Yes. On a serious note
I say, let us pray that we find a third way
neither communism nor capitalism
but a third way

[another guest passes out]

some middle ground
to get rich, like in the West
and to share like in the East
Because the choice that we are being given
this should not be our only choice.

[another guest passes out]

HELMUT: Bullshit
This is bullshit bullshit
in life you have to choose
one thing or another
do you think you can become partly pregnant?
Life is not like this.

URSULA: What do you know what life is like
you've never been out of the village you were born in
"we must choose"
"we must choose"
the truth is:
the world will choose for you

[another guest passes out]

HELMUT: Okay. You want a different world?
Go to Mars! Go to Mars!

URSULA: You mean you think it's OK
to go through all this
living like this for forty years
and settle for no better place than this?

Tickets for Full Circle here. The play runs through November 29th.

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