Get our free newsletter
Of the theater’s many perils, the butt-numbing political allegory may be the direst: Unless you’re seeing Angels in America, the balance of theatrical rewards to polemical risks probably ain’t in your favor. So the Exuberant-Itinerant school of theater-making—which is the best just-coined shorthand I’ve got to describe the tack Michael Rohd has taken with Full Circle at Woolly Mammoth—was in this case probably less an ambitious gamble than a necessary gambit. We’re talking, after all, about an oddball fall-of-the-Berlin Wall comedy from Charles L. Mee, one of the American theater’s least predictable game-changers: Put this play behind a proscenium, and even at a relatively adventurous company like Woolly you’d risk an audience uprising to match the historical one onstage.
Stage Full Circle the way Rohd has, though—with actors herding audiences from lobby to rehearsal room to balcony and back, past camera crews pumping live video feeds onto screens that were playing prerecorded skits just moments before, stopping to gape as one performer bumps another down a concrete staircase in a shopping cart—and you’ve got a production that breaks through theatrical boundaries as enthusiastically as the citizens of Berlin took that other barrier down two decades ago. Mee’s scattershot satire on the collision of two profoundly compromised geopolitical systems may not be much clearer or more coherent when the dust from the collective stampede has cleared, but as one astute theatergoer in my circle pointed out, the very act of chasing the action around the damn building helps keep the restlessness at bay.
That, and the comic contributions of a corps of Woolly favorites. Full Circle is the story of one Pamela Dalrymple, a socialite among socialists in East Berlin as the Soviet empire crumbles and the populace takes to the streets. Pamela, played with just the right mix of airy charm and cavalier entitlement by Naomi Jacobson, has come from New York to sample the avant-garde theatrical offerings of the Berliner Ensemble, and through a string of farcically unlikely events she comes to be in possession of the infant child of East German strongman Erich Honecker. When I tell you that the sickly Honecker is played by a scowling, oxygen-tanked Sarah Marshall, that the baby soon winds up being nannied by the folkloric character Dulle Griet (Jessica Frances Dukes), and that Pamela will shortly make a public declaration of love for Warren Buffett (Michael Willis)—he’s parachuted in to search for early investment opportunities—you’ll perhaps gather that a realistic recap of the events of 1989 isn’t on the cards. But it will perhaps not fully register, until I explain that there will also be a peasant wedding and a tightrope walk, a kitchen visit with what might be a Swedish chef, and a public trial presided over by the Berliner Ensemble’s neurotically self-loathing artistic director (played, entertainingly, by Woolly boss Howard Shalwitz), that what Mee is conjuring with in Full Circle can be rough magic indeed.
It’s partly that the play is a formal experiment, a kind of theatrical beat-sampling. Channeling the Dadaist poet and painter Max Ernst, Mee cherry-picks a literary landscape both esoteric and populist, lifting words wholesale from one text and riffing on passages from another to “creat[e] a collage” inspired by sources as diverse as power-broker autobiographies and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, and academic treatises on the emotional life of the fascist male. If the pieces fit roughly—if the edges seem a little jagged, once all those samples get torn out and pasted onto the rough narrative about the fate of that baby—well, that’s probably to be expected.
And yes, the going gets a little thick as the play ticks into its second hour: The audience troops once more into the main auditorium, transformed since the last visit from a concrete-floored “garden of cushions” into a kind of circus maximus with space for patrons to settle on all sides. At the center, Shalwitz’s Heiner Muller examines his conscience, confesses that “given the license to speak freely in my theater,” he has pretty much taken a pass, and pronounces himself a guilty sod. Naturally, he’s immediately appointed judge of the tribunal that, with a nod to both the story of Solomon and the Chinese legend of the chalk circle, will settle the custody dispute about that baby.
It’s a showcase scene for Shalwitz, no argument, but nothing as visually inventive as all the coming and going that’s gone before. And with Rohd’s movable feast coasting toward Mee’s sickly-sweet (and presumably sarcastic) digestif—a lumpen German chorus of “All You Need Is Love”—the audience realizes that it’s been waiting in vain for Mee to pull back from his artsy collage and frame some sort of bigger picture. Whether it’s from lack of inspiration or a distaste for easy reassurance, he’s got nothing of the sort to offer—and either way, that lack leaves Full Circle feeling like a play on which someone’s neglected to close the loop.