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The Berlin Circle

Auteur directors like Anne Bogart, Robert Woodruff and (in this case) Tina Landau love the scripts of Charles L. Mee, who tends to write wildly elliptical and unwieldy affairs that function mainly as loose intellectual canvases ideal for postmodern helmers who like to put heavy stamps on the material they direct. This time offering a revisionist and obsessively self-referential take on the myth that formed the basis for Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," Mee and Landau offer a striking but pretentious panoply of images and ideas, a barely discernible thematic center and a lack of cultural truth.

With:
Mr. Market/ Werner ..... Ian Barford Translator/Cook's Assistant/Ursula ..... Alexandra Billings Ping/Warren/ Rokstar/Masseur ..... Tim Grimm Title Man/Costume Designer/ Concierge, Clown ..... Voki Kalfayan Christa ..... Elizabeth Laidlaw Dulle Griet ..... Mariann Mayberry Pamela Dalrymple ..... Amy Morton Erich Honecker/ Hermann ..... Yasen Peyankov Egan Krenz/Cook/ Gunter ..... Daniel Ruben Heiner Muller ..... Matthew Sussman Hans Modrow/Helmut ..... Troy West

Auteur directors like Anne Bogart, Robert Woodruff and (in this case) Tina Landau love the scripts of Charles L. Mee, who tends to write wildly elliptical and unwieldy affairs that function mainly as loose intellectual canvases ideal for postmodern helmers who like to put heavy stamps on the material they direct. This time offering a revisionist and obsessively self-referential take on the myth that formed the basis for Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” Mee and Landau offer a striking but pretentious panoply of images and ideas, a barely discernible thematic center and a lack of cultural truth.

The events here are set around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. After an opening set on the stage of the Berliner Ensemble Theater (famous, of course, for its Brecht), Mee focuses on a tiny lost baby called Karl Marx Honecker, son of the secretary-general of the Communist Party, and here represented by a doll.

The kid (who seemingly stands for the future of East Germany) is rescued by a Grusha-like girl from East Berlin who escapes the Reds in tandem with an American socialite modeled on Pamela Harriman. These two women are chased around town by a couple of bent, funny cops straight out of Dario Fo, with everyone running into various dowdy proles along the way.

Also lost somewhere in this carnival-like affair is a character named Warren (as in Buffet), a mega-investor who sips Cherry Coke and preaches free-market platitudes.

Finally, German playwright Heiner Muller (a character with perpetual vomit on his shirt) delivers a long monologue about the importance of the arts, and is ultimately asked to judge which of the three interested women (the baby’s slutty mother and his two temporary guardians) get to keep the kid.

Unlike Brecht, Mee has the interested parties grab on to the baby and refuse to let go, prompting Muller to observe how much times have changed. In that last moment of frightened self-interest on the part of all concerned, we are obviously intended to be appalled at the new way of the world.

With a huge cast and a massive physical production that includes a rope bridge slung across the audience, there are few theaters outside of the Steppenwolf (and perhaps Lincoln Center) with either the resources or the subscribers to mount a massive show that skillfully combines its interest in weighty affairs of state with a circus-like atmosphere that includes the entire cast warbling “YMCA” amidst the rubble of the wall.

There’s no doubting the intelligence of all parties involves here, nor the extravagant theatrical imaginations. And the basic idea of translating Brecht to the politically and morally ambiguous events of 1989 is a smart choice. But one watches this affair with interest and amusement but not much dedication.

The main problem is the surfeit of American liberal assumptions — especially as they relate to regular European folks. All of the characters in this wildly uneven and sometimes arrogantly immature show are stereotypical and one-dimensional (even though Steppenwolf ensemble members Amy Morton and Marianne Mayberry do their considerable bests to flesh out the two central women), and the East Germans in particular are naive, leaden and sheep-like.

The interest of East Germans in American popular culture is, in reality, entirely understandable. But Mee and Landau are too busy piling on their disdain for Levi’s and Warren Buffet to care.

The Berlin Circle

(DRAMA; STEPPENWOLF THEATER; 510 SEATS; $ 39 TOP)

Production: CHICAGO A Steppenwolf Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Charles L. Mee. Directed by Tina Landau.

Crew: Sets, James Schuette; lighting, Scott Zielinski; costumes, Mara Blumenfeld; music and sound, Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen; dramaturg, Michele Volansky; production stage manager, Laura Koch. Opened Oct. 4, 1998. Reviewed Oct. 6. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

With: Mr. Market/ Werner ..... Ian Barford Translator/Cook's Assistant/Ursula ..... Alexandra Billings Ping/Warren/ Rokstar/Masseur ..... Tim Grimm Title Man/Costume Designer/ Concierge, Clown ..... Voki Kalfayan Christa ..... Elizabeth Laidlaw Dulle Griet ..... Mariann Mayberry Pamela Dalrymple ..... Amy Morton Erich Honecker/ Hermann ..... Yasen Peyankov Egan Krenz/Cook/ Gunter ..... Daniel Ruben Heiner Muller ..... Matthew Sussman Hans Modrow/Helmut ..... Troy WestWith: Lucinda Bingham, Elizabeth Birkrant, Cassandra Bissell, Stephanie Childers, Catherine Cooper, Brad Johnson, Chloe Johnston, Walker Lambert, Saket Soni, Eddie Shin, Julian Stetkevych, David Stern.

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