Twenty years ago this week, the Berlin Wall fell. It seemed proof positive that an overwhelming force of people could make a change for good, a stand against government oppression, by sheer numbers and tenacity, forever dispelling the myth of public apathy. Still true?
Woolly Mammoth’s production of Charles L. Mee’s rather chaotic “Full Circle” pushes and pulls the audience, moving around multiple physical settings in an attempt to put you in that head space of the crowd at the falling of the Berlin Wall. Are we meant to be spectators or participants? Maybe both.
The play is a riff on the original Chinese myth of the chalk circle, which in turn inspired Bertolt Brecht’s “Caucausian Chalk Circle.” There are certainly Brechtian moments in this production. Brecht’s own Berliner Ensemble features in the play, with its later director Heiner Muller even a character. He’s performed by Woolly’s Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz. How’s that for full circle? It’s a classic piece of Brechtian detachment.
Do you need to know any of this deeper theatrical knowledge to enjoy the play? I’m not sure, because as I have that knowledge, it completely informed my experience. I have a feeling just as a participant in a crowd experiences different aspects, so will audience members here. Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Artist - they’re all here. Every character is an archetype – we’ve even got Warren Buffet making a deus ex machina appearance!
The plot itself takes the audience on a journey through the Woolly complex as we watch the downfall of the East German regime and the fall of the Wall, while two women struggle to do the right thing and save an abandoned baby whom the mob would crush otherwise. Inevitably, they must fight over who is the true mother. But there’s a twist at the very end – responsibility is left to the one with the most love but the least ability to provide. We’re left to wonder – as we often do after tumultuous events – wait, what just happened here, and what do we do now?
With the exception of one intense monologue about culpability and complacency, the play seems deceptively slim. I’m really not sure the audience the night I saw it understood the full slap delivered at the end of the play, a slap that perhaps negates the power of the people.
Does that matter? What’s the purpose of theater after all, if not to make you think? And “Full Circle” definitely did that. I’m still debating in my head whether I liked it or not! To me, that’s great theater – because it’s challenging. And with Woolly, there’s always the pleasure of watching actors perform at the top of their game.
Sarah Marshall’s cross-gender roles are outstanding – as the creepy old symbol of the old regime, Erich Honecker, she embodied evil authority’s grip, and as affable drunk Helmut, all that’s both good and bad about middle class complacency and decency. Naomi Jacobsen is perfection as Pamela, that old school blueblood, the sort of woman who could muck out a stable in a cocktail dress and still come out pristine. As bumbling officers Hermann and Werner, Daniel Escobar and Michael Russotto have a hilarious escapade involving a tightrope walk and nature’s calling (you’ll see). The whole ensemble is tight and completely committed to the epic theatre style, strongly established by director Michael Rohd.
There’s a triumvirate of political movements on display – communism, aristocracy, and capitalism – none of which are going to show the best way out of the mess. So yes, it’s chaotic. And yes, peel away the layers and there isn’t much, other than a nagging feeling that every time you hear the Beatles’ song “All You Need is Love,” it’s a lie.
But I suspect that may be the point.
Now thru November 29
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D Street NW 20004