Sunday, November 8, 2009

Woolly Moves Audiences "Full Circle"

Woolly Mammoth, always avant of the unconventional, has once again created a tour-de-force theatrical experience. Full Circle, playing through November, pushes the envelope - or shall we say, the audience - in every direction possible, from lobby to rehearsal hall, from watching actors crosing a single wire "rope" bridge, to watching action from a descending catwalk in a reconfigured theater-in-the-round. As theater exercise, it is bracing; as art, it doesn't work.

How to "read" a play where Pamela Harriman and Warren Buffet meet in East Berlin at the start of the revolution (Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev!) as Pamela is being left holding a baby until his mother returns, where socialite Harriman and billionaire Buffet then meet up again at wedding feast between a young woman, whom Pamela has hired as a young East German "revolutionary" as the baby's nanny, and both Pamela and the nanny are pursued for "kidnapping" former Prime Minister Erich Honecker's baby (Karl Marx Honecker is the result of a union between the aged P.M. and his young mistress Christa)? Where they escape the Stassi police with the help of the au pair pushing Pamela and baby in a grocery cart that passes for a truck with no transmission? Or where the play-within-a-play that starts the program is performed in ersatz Chinese and German, with subtitles, between a Chinese Communist Party apparatchik and an East German agricultural expert about selling sharing land for rice production? All this with occasional audience sing-alongs, karaoke style, to the Beatles' "All You Need is Love."

I frankly didn't get it.

According to program notes, playwright Charles Mee was inspired by The Chalk Circle, a Chinese "zaju" play by Li Qianfu, which in turn inspired The Chalk Circle by German poet Klabund, finally punching out in Bertolt Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle.

The knowledge of the play's antique provenance left me wondering about the "chalk circle" proscribed on the remodeled Woolly stage, where Woolly's Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz portrayed his fictional East Germany counterpart as artistic director of the East Berlin theater, belaboring his alleged artistic "crimes" during a long second-act monologue before being appointed judge for the crime of kidnapping the Honecker baby. His State-prescribed duty was to determine whose baby Karl Marx Honecker actually was - the birth mother (the now-deceased Honecker's ex-mistress), Pamela Harriman (who invited the audience to join her and Warren for their coming nuptials in Biarritz) or the young woman who nurtured the baby throughout the the chase by Stassi officers as they ran from Berlin to Dresden.

Shalwitz, instead of being prosecuted for cooperating with Communist authorities to remove the "art" from his theater, is named judge to determine who should retain custody of baby Karl Marx. As if to underscore the allusion, the police note that the theatrical director's task as judge is of Solomonic proportion.

At one point, while we were gathered in the theater, I found myself sitting next to Bob Mondello, theater critic, taking notes on a manilla envelope. While it was too dark to see what he wrote, I did note that the critic cracked a smile once or twice (the show is nothing if not absurdist humor), but I also saw a wide and undisguised yawn. Once we moved out into the lobby for intermission, which turned out to be an arranged wedding for the young woman with her brother's moronic next door neighbor/auto mechanic who changed tires only, replete with dancing on the table and fortune cookies (!) for the audience, I lost track of Mondello, but did wonder about the accessibility of this play for the elderly, wheelchair bound or otherwise-impaired theater-goer who might want to puzzle out the possibilities of this play.

Though people speculated aloud whether this show was designed to point up how those experiencing the opening between East and West back in '89 could have viewed the replacement of one -ism -- Communism -- for another 'ism -- Capitalism, most people appeared to take away the fortune cookies.

All together now, "All you need is love. Da-dah-dah-da-dah."

I can't say how this was supposed to fit together. Only thing I can say for certain: this show was not about was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Or the trials of King Solomon. Or the wisdom of Woolly.