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FULL CIRCLE

Written by Charles L. Mee

Directed by Robert Woodruff

Set design by Riccardo Hernandez

With Mirjana Jokovich, Will LeBow, Mary Schultz, Stephen Rowe, Stephen Rowe, Karen MacDonald, Karen MacDonald, Karen MacDonald, Jonathan Hova, Laura Knight

Full Circle, as opposed to Loot, is the theatrical equivalent of a train wreck: powerful and complex, loud and ugly. It is postmodernism at its apogee: brandishing quotation as the main stylistic device, throwing at the audience everything, including the kitchen sink, and working overtime to create the mood of a mad circus. The play is visually stunning, frequently funny, and just as frequently annoying.

Quotations abound, on all levels. The story is an adaptation to the third degree: it’s based on the 14th century Chinese play, adapted by playwright Klabund (Alfred Henschke) in 1928, then by Bertolt Brecht in 1954 as The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and now by Christopher Mee as Full Circle. Brecht was trying to argue with Klabund’s play; it worked, because Brecht’s play is an unqualified masterpiece, one of the most startling and exciting plays of modern theatre.

Mee’s play argues with Brecht; and Brecht wins this argument easily, since most of what works in Full Circle is where it borrows from The Caucasian Chalk Circle most liberally. I have to warn you, by the way: if you don’t know Brecht’s play well, you are in danger of being totally confused by Full Circle: this is not a play that values the narrative highly.

Mee moves the play’s action to Berlin around the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, keeping the main dramatic conflict the same. A woman (here, the American tourist Pamela Dalrymple) is given the baby son of Eric Honecker (the deposed Secretary General of East Germany’s Communist Party). She hires an au pair, Dulle Griet (Mirjana Jokovic), and treks across the country with her charge, pursued by two clownish soldiers. In the end, the child’s mother claims her baby back, setting the stage for a courtroom finale.

For the first two hours, we get two things. One is quotations, quotations, and more quotations; if, as the proverb says, lesser artists borrow and great artists steal, then most of Full Circle is borrowed. Here you get a gag swiped from The Karate Kid; there you get a name from Peter Breugel (although this Dulle Griet has very little in common with Breugel’s insane apostole); add to this the frequent leitmotif of that stalwart oldie, “YMCA,” which is used to considerable comic effect and to even more considerable confusion.

The other thing is the spectacular (and spectacularly eclectic) set design, which actually manages to add meaning to the meandering production: the physical space here represents the internal space. The ideologically suppressed theatre in the opening scene is a sharply delineated box, occupying something like a third of the stage space; in contrast, the streets of Berlin after the Wall’s fall takes up the whole space.

Where Full Circle comes to a grinding halt is in the two areas that I miss the most: plot and characterization. With a couple exceptions (which I will mention later), there are no fully developed characters here. Characters in this play enter the action and leave three hours later without being changed from the stick figures they were before. The plot is likewise a mess, with entire scenes (like the exciting but meaningless scene at a posh spa) being simply pointless; yes, they all function as illustrations of the east-meets-west confusion on the borderline between capitalism and communism, but, surely, theatre is capable of so much more than merely illustrating.

Mee’s postmodern theatrics don’t help much, either: when someone suddenly bursts into a song, gesticulating wildly, in the middle of a monologue, it doesn’t help the audience understand the character any better.

The last problem is the unusually poor sound design: the sound cues are not well timed to the action, and the sound volume is entirely too loud. For two hours, Full Circle feels like a not-too-balanced individual, yelling into my ear.

For the last half hour, though, Full Circle is riveting, no holds barred, raising the usual question of whether thirty minutes of virtually flawless theatrical action is worth two prior hours of assault on the senses. In this particular case, I would venture to suggest that, yes, the end does make it all worthwhile.

Full Circle, like Brecht’s play before it, gets an instant jolt of energy when the Judge enters the scene. Here, his name is Heiner Muller (Will LeBow), and his entrance in Act II is an amazing, tour-de-force monologue, and LeBow nails it, seething with self-contempt and contempt for humanity in general, and yet gaining an understanding about the world he lives in (note that the physical space of this scene is increasing throughout). This monologue goes on and on, and becomes more and more riveting.

The finale is great as well, where LeBow and Mirjana Jokovic (you might have seen her in Underground, perhaps the last screen masterpiece of the twentieth century) finally become full-fledged leads. The ending, which attempts to berate Brecht for his idealistic world view, still ends even more upbeat and idealistic.

The difference between this climactic half hour and the rest of the play is that the ending actually deals with people; not with postmodern conceits like the rest of Full Circle and not with dead bodies like Loot. I wonder if this difference is lost on A.R.T.