Don’t even bother asking the box office where your seat for Full Circle is located. “General Admission” doesn’t begin to describe it. Under the collaborative hand of director Michael Rohd, the creative team has remade Woolly’s entire facility into a roaming mirage of 1989 Berlin. Adapted from Charles L. Mee’s play – itself adapted from the ancient Chinese Yuan myth of the chalk circle – this Full Circle cuts no corners in its perceptive investigation of ownership and civic duty.
Rohd kicks off by flinging the actors directly into the night’s visiting population. In doing so, he assembles the theatrical equivalent of 3-D glasses, in which a heady swirl of props, costumes, gags, and colorful characters touch a foreground of our vision usually left empty in the gulf between spectator and stage. The result is an outlandish, immersive epic, both acutely political and irreverently postmodern.
At the outset, a series of glowing video projections impart some Zen-like bits of truth. “You will move from space to space. Sometimes, you will sit. Sometimes, you will stand.” Easy enough. But what about the hundreds of fellow theatergoers who might be blocking your footpath to the next scene? The videos are almost languid in their mediation. “At times, you will follow your guides closely. At times, you will be your own guide.” Sounds fun, but does it really work?
Yes, it does, every time, and we’re rewarded with scenes that pop with comic energy, staged inventively from all angles. Rohd, who’s been doing interactive, site-specific work for years, is an apt match for such a large-scale environmental piece of art. He’s aided in no small part by Shannon Scrofano’s marvelous set and video design (yes, the revolution will be televised) and by the giddy fun that eight reunited Woolly company members bring to the shared arena.
That the production doesn’t ever grow claustrophobic has much to do with the surprisingly capacious lobby space, even after it’s been decked out in stone walkways and graffiti’d cement. It is here that the Berlin Wall, finally, comes down. A group of rioting students, elated by the fresh breach, storms the experimental theater run by artistic director Heiner Muller (a real-life figure, here played by Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz). Inside Muller’s theater, some devious members of the old guard have taken unlikely refuge. Foremost among these cartoonish villains is the blanched, feeble Head of State Erich Honecker – whom the estimable Sarah Marshall plays less like a man than an exposed mollusk – who has been threatening in a wheezy, burbling voice to close down the theater for good, dedicated as it is to a strange new avant-garde that flies over the heads of the general public.
Muller’s saved by the bell, and the crowds cart off Honecker and his cronies Krenz and Modrow (Daniel Escobar and Michael Russotto, who reappear later as a pair of buffoon law enforcers). But in all the chaos, a very important little baby boy is left behind, and the only two left behind to save it are Pamela, a flighty American socialite (Naomi Jacobson) and Dulle Griet, an introverted young student activist (Jessica Frances Dukes).
The symbolism’s not subtle. Who will take the best care of the child, swaddled in white? Will it be the ruthlessly affluent Pamela who guides the Fate of the Nation to full development? Or is Dulle Griet the better guardian, with her caring touch and pushover demeanor? The question’s as vast as America and Germany, and as intricately bound as the manners in which capitalists and communists learn to give and take.
Economics provides the frame for Full Circle, but it’s the broad, witty comedy that keeps this big ship afloat. Marshall is queen of the bug-eyed grimace, but a wealth of talent – among them Kate Eastwood Norris, Wyckham Avery, Michael Willis, and a diverse ensemble of young rebels and guides – are ever-present with diverting bits of vaudeville shtick, popping out of nowhere with caricature, slapstick, and absurdist physical comedy.
In the end, we come back around to the artistic director, lying prone on a circular platform that echoes Brecht’s image of the turntable in The Caucasian Chalk Circle (the 1940’s incarnation of the Chinese legend). As a hero and victim of the arts, Muller’s got a lot on his mind, and his plaintive soliloquy on love, art, duty, society, and punishment could just as well have poured forth from Howard Shalwitz.
It’s one of many exciting ways that Full Circle resonates, brought into being by one of the most politically engaged theaters in this most political city. Try as we might to avoid it, our present always seems to take the shape our past. Power will be thrown off balance, we will migrate toward new ways of balancing it out, and, inevitably, the Berlin Wall won’t be the last one to fall.
Full Circle – TOP PICK!
by Charles L. Mee
directed by Michael Rohd
produced by Woolly Mammoth
reviewed by Hunter Styles