At last, we have a play that examines the immense political changes in Eastern Europe of the late 1980s. Set in Berlin, Germany, in 1989, "The Berlin Circle" transpires in the context of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. For the first time, East and West Germans could freely go back and forth and interact. Communism was also giving way to capitalism.
However, politics is a mere subtext of this imaginative production. The central character is one who has nary a line. Karl Marx Honecker is the son of Erich Honecker, former head of East Germany. Abandoned as an infant, he is left with Pamela Dalrymple (Steppenwolf ensemble member Amy Morton), a visiting American socialite. Despite her vowing care for the baby, she finds a young East German girl named Dulle Griet (Mariann Mayberry, the only other member of the legendary Steppenwolf ensemble in the cast) to serve as an au pair and perform the actual grunt work of caring for the baby. Two German officers, who devolve to be rather jester-like in their pursuit of the duo, chase them through several locales of the country.
All of these events lead to a long, though not drawn out, conclusion. The story comes full circle, and is especially satisfying with its drama and energy that is a veritable celebration of theater.
Veteran Steppenwolf collaborators Charles L. Mee and Tina Landau were commissioned to produce this play, and have turned in an original, groundbreaking, fresh production. Tackling the subject matter alone is new, but director Landau also incorporated unique innovations of her theatrical space. Avoiding spoilers, there is a crumbling of the fourth theatrical wall that provides several of the show's more intriguing scenes. The costumes are also splendid, from the German officers, to the well-documented European punk style of the mid-late 80s.
Morton turns in a terrific performance, embodying the classic rich American. "It is a challenge to not overact, yet to bring the performance to within reality," she explained. Her subtle love interest is a rich investor named Warren (Tim Grimm), though it is not made clear whether he is actually supposed to be Warren Buffett, or his parody. Mayberry as well shows a wide range in going from a poor anonymous East German, to a formidable player in the overlying plot of who will wind up the mother of the baby.
"The Berlin Circle" is an inventive adaptation of "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," a 1948 play by Bertolt Brecht. Both are based on a 13th century Chinese fable, a classic tale that is smartly incorporated into the finale.
"The Berlin Circle" is playing at the Steppenwolf Theater, 1650 N. Halsted, through November 15. $29-$39. Ushering opportunities are available. Post-show discussions with the cast are featured on every Tuesday and Thursday during the run. For more information, call Steppenwolf at 312-335-1650.