by Charles Mee
American Repertory Theatre
Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 2000
[from an email report to the family]
I promised a take on Full Circle, and some explanation of why I found it so exciting.
Some background first: I had never heard of Charles Mee before, and when I saw this play listed as running in repertory with Joe Orton's Loot (of which more anon), I sort of dismissed it. But then I checked it out because it was running Saturday (both matinee and evening) and I thought it might be more reasonable to go to it. Turns out Mee is a pretty exciting character -- there's a whole lot of information on him around. The main thing for me was that he's been specializing in taking classic plays and doing takes on them, raiding them and doing what he calls "dialogues" with them. This one is a "dialogue" with, he says, "a whole dramatic tradition," including Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle and the older play that Brecht was raiding for his story.
So I thought I might like to see it. And I was right. Both for the play, which I found quite wonderful -- I think Brecht would like it a lot -- and for the superlative staging the ART gave it. The basic gimmick is this: take the Caucasian Chalk Circle and set it in 1989, at the moment of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and start it with a performance at Brecht's own theatre, the Berliner Ensemble, now run by a man named Mueller (who, historically, it turns out, though he spent a lot of time in trouble with the East German authorities, was actually giving information to the secret police -- the Stasi -- to keep the theatre going). Suppose Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany and the person responsible for the Wall, is in the audience, and marches up on stage to object to the performance -- a parody conversation between three caricatured Chinese and two caricatured businessmen, via a hysterically funny translator, which sounds a whole lot like the debate which starts Brecht's play.
While Honecker is humiliating the abject (and extremely voluble) Mueller, who spends most of this scene crawling on the floor and trying desperately to explain how unpolitical the play is and how much he loves the regime, the revolution breaks out.
Here's where the production gets really interesting. I don't know if I can describe it, but picture this: the "play" they're watching is performed in a rectangular box, maybe 20' wide by 6.5' high and a few feet deep. When the show starts (actually, it starts with someone in a "Berlin-decadent" costume coming out with a sign painted on his body, which he flashes us with -- "Berlin, 1989"), the curtain (it's a curtain/proscenium production; I haven't seen one in a long time) rises just to the top of the box, so it's like we're looking into a slot or window. The six characters are seated in a row of chairs, facing us, and the dialogue is all conducted as speeches. When it ends, the lights let us see that the first row of the house has Honecker and his entourage, including his wife and their baby (hint, hint), who march up on stage as the curtain rises just a little more.
When the revolution breaks out, the way we know it is that the door to the right bursts open, a brilliant white light from that side of the stage illuminates everything, a whole bunch of grotesque figures, some eight feet tall, lean in through the door, and there's this huge, deafening burst of rock music. Somebody shoves the the door shut, and it all vanishes. This happens four or five times through this scene -- at one point, in the midst of it, someone comes in through the door; it's "Dulle Griet" from the Breughel painting (and, some people may remember, from Top Girls), with a couple of chunks of the Wall in her hands, as a student revolutionary.
Turns out that Honecker and company have to escape in disguise, and his wife abandons their baby to this apparently airheaded American heiress, Pamela Dalrymple (wonderfully ditzily played by Karen Schultz), who -- here as through the rest of the play -- spends what seems hours (or would if she weren't funny) gushing on about her unbelievably privileged life, explaining to starving East Germans, for instance, that their hovel is really charming, just as homey as Windsor Palace the last time she visited there. Pamela hires Griet as an au pair on the spot, and the rest of the play is, as you'd expect, them being chased across country by the police, who want the Honecker baby for political reasons, and ending up in the Chalk Circle scene with Mueller as Azdak, released from jail and dressed in judicial robes for the trial.
The whole chase is wonderfully staged -- and acted -- in true Brechtian style (updated, of course). The highlight for me was the hanging bridge scene, where the women have to go across a rope bridge over a chasm which the soldiers don't have enough courage to cross. When they get to it, the curtain rises the rest of the way -- first time in the play -- and we realize that overhead is a bridge, maybe 15 or 18 feet above the floor, and a vertical ladder leading up to it on on the left. The women have to climb the ladder and cross the bridge, right across the whole width of the stage. It's scary, but also moving: at this point, halfway across, Pamela realizes, as she goes first, that this is the first time she's ever risked her life for anybody else, or even cared enough about anybody else to risk her life. And the next scene when the two clown soldiers who've been chasing them Keystone Kops style back and forth across the country, get half way across and can't make it, is hysterical (it involves the boss trying to get the other one's mind off the height by having him sing "YMCA" -- which has been a sort of theme of the play, for reasons which escape me -- on the tight wire).
I also admired the scenes at Griet's brother's house -- as in Brecht's play, she runs to her unwilling brother to hide her from the soldiers. In this play the brother's house is another box, about the size of the opening scene, incredibly slovenly and with about a 6'6" ceiling; as the women and the baby arrive from the side, we see the drunken brother and his wife, back to us in their chairs, watching TV. He wants nothing to do with sheltering these fugitives from the law, but his wife figures out that Pamela's rich, and immediately decides she's okay. The condition on which they can be sheltered, as in Brecht, is that someone -- Griet, of course, it turns out -- has to marry the brother's useless neighbour in order to give the baby "a father." The whole scene in the hovel, with the brother lumbering back and forth across the stage carrying -- for reasons that escaped me -- a plugged-in floor lamp, like some shabby Diogenes, was wonderful; and equally wonderful was the moment when Griet stands in the middle of the room with her "groom" -- who, in this version, isn't at death's door, but is just a sort of near vegetable -- and the wedding celebration rises up out of the pit in front of her, complete with "last supper" style table and overhead white Christmas lights.
So, there are lots of wonderful effects; there were also half a dozen or more solid, exciting performances. Will LeBow, whom we'd seen before in Won't Pay, Won't Pay, is wonderful as the abject, humiliated, destroyed Mueller, perfectly conscious of who he's betrayed and why. Mary Shultz's Pamela was a sort of version of Betty White crossed with, oh, maybe Patty Hearst.Mirjana Jokovic's Dulle Griet had a wonderful, throaty, dumb-sounding voice that was at the same time full of revolutionary angst. The Keystone Kops soldiers were amazing, but I never did quite figure out their names. In all, it was a cast of 22, and they were orchestrated and directed as well as any cast I've ever seen. But the real star was the stagecraft -- the way the shape of the scene controlled how you felt about it, the superlative sound system, the astonishing lighting design. Makes you realize you don't often see really imaginative stagecraft in a place like Fredericton.
And then there's the ending. Mee says that he wrote the play because it seemed to him Brecht's ending (Grusha gets the baby because she can't stand to pull him apart; the birth mother doesn't because, Azdak says, she can't be the real mother if she's willing to pull it apart in order to have it) was naive. In this one, there are three competing "mothers," and it's Pamela who gets the kid, because she is willing to cheat and push and grab him. As Mueller/Azdak says, "people who let go get things taken away from them." The birth mother, Honecker's wife, is dragged away kicking and screaming, and then -- I love this, because it's so ambiguous -- Pamela rehires Griet (who's the only one who really cares about the baby) to be her au pair, and take care of the baby while Pamela runs off to Paris or wherever. Wow. It's a kind of elegant allegory of capitalism: the rich get what they want because they are the rich, and the poor get what they think they want, though it's not what a dispassionate observer would think was just . . . and capitalism marches on.
Exactly like Brecht, I thought -- I think Brecht would have loved it. I know I did.