High-Wire Act


Sitting in the "yawning abyss," the Steppenwolf audience stays nonetheless alert throughout The Berlin Circle. They'd better. Many are directly under a rope bridge, where soldiers, nervous about falling and needing to defecate, chase two women from one side of the auditorium to the other.

Set in 1989 East Germany as the Wall tumbles, Tina Landau's production of Charles L. Mee's cartoon collage explodes above and around the house. Bound by the story of two women who protect an infant abandoned in the chaos and then are accused of kidnapping, events move freely between locales that include the stage of the Berliner ensemble, a suburb of Dresden, an interrogation chamber, and a museum.

For this turbulent world, the artistic team utilized a melange of disparate techniques and theatrical conventions. "So much in the play is a collision of different things," scenic designer James Schuette says of a work that ranges from environmentalism to expressionism, incorporating vaudeville, street theatre, circus, and musical theatre.

The Berlin Wall rolls in and characters carry pieces of it away. Oversized photos of Mao and Stalin fly in. An actor on stilts juggles toilet paper rolls. Another pushes a Studebaker truck with no ignition from one place to the same place as a revolve turns. (Crew members salvaged a rusted-out truck frame from a Chicago dump and painted it green.)

Schuette took his cue from Mee and Landau, who took their cues from many others. "Chuck is a great borrower," Schuette explains. Lifting passages from assorted biographies and writings, including those of Heiner Muller, Pamela Harriman, and Warren Buffett, Mee mixed legendary people and fictions.

He took parts of the story and style from Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle and from the Chinese tale Brecht himself borrowed. Landau planted actors in the auditorium and opened scenes with placards read by an MC, who speaks German with some words echoed in translation to hilarious effect. Schuette eschewed masking, exposing the entire theatre and the whole house. But when the two "kidnappers" compete with each other and the birth mother for the infant, Mee parts with Brecht, giving the baby to the one who proves her love by holding on tight, not by letting go.

Mee is a historian as well as playwright, and this work required extensive research. "I read a ton of Muller," says Schuette, who also studied houses in Dresden and classical Berlin architecture to create the front of the Staatliche Museum. He recreated murals from photographs of those on the Berlin Wall. And a steel viewing point from West to East Berlin served as his model for a high stand isolated for a court scene.

Scott Zielinski flew in a 5,000W fresnel to support a lone man in a chair undergoing interrogation, and added color to the lights for a broad musical number that made use of the full stage. "The Wall has just come down, and it's a party," says Zielinski, describing the scene also as a "cheap version of a rock concert, a scene interrupted literally by the capitalism" that replaces but doesn't improve on Communism in East Berlin.

Zielinski went for a raw feeling, with light spilling into the house, and sometimes even focused on it. Foregoing the house lighting system when spectators enter, he focused light from the start, placing a streetlight fixture on the catwalk system so it would shine down on the house. "Rather than people walking into a safe, comfortable theatre with warm house lighting, it felt more like people were walking into an event," he says.

Mara Blumenfeld researched the clothing of the time and place, but what found its way onto the stage was true to character, action, and mood--sometimes only to 1989 Berlin. Pamela, who speaks psychobabble about warmth and homey-ness while un-self-consciously displaying her wealth in the face of poverty and despair, wore one sunny yellow dress through many scenes; businessmen wore business suits and soldiers looked ready for battle, while some characters' dress was exaggerated and comical.

"A lot of what ended up onstage was the result of an intense rehearsal process and a lot of experimenting," the costume designer reflects, noting that the team wanted to capture a moment in history without photographing it.

Sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen collaboratively composed and found a wide range of material to complement variegated scenes and heighten emotion. As the Wall falls, we hear many strong sounds at precise moments, underlining specific actions, not a consistent crowd sound.

The Berlin Circle is about art and censorship and many things other than the wacky story it tells, a story that spins to a close with a double marriage. A nightmare vision? Sometimes. But this perfect expression of unified chaos is also a new-fashioned farce.