Woolly Mammoth’s “Full Circle,” review’d

Woolly Mammoth's Full Circle

Michael Russotto, Sarah Marshall, Daniel Escobar, and Jessica Frances Dukes

When we say that Woolly Mammoth’s production of Charles L. Mee’s decade-old satirical farce Full Circle is a sprawling affair, we don’t mean merely that it’s forever threatening to collapse under its own allegorical girth.

As directed by Michael Rohd, the show is performed promenade-style, appropriating almost every public area of the building as a stage wherein a dance party might erupt or a trial be called to order. A fresh-faced chorus of student demonstrators double as traffic cops, shuffling us through the theater’s rehearsal rooms, lobby, and auditorium as the narrative — a chase, more or less, through Berlin in the chaotic days after the Wall came down, 20 years ago this month — progresses.

Both the unconventional staging and some audacious casting lend the production a giddy swagger that goes a long way towards papering over the scattered quality of Mee’s script. The playwright mashes up characters and situations from across continents and centuries, but few of them are fully realized enough for us to invest in emotionally as people or intellectually as metaphors.

Drawing upon the 700-year-old Chinese play The Chalk Circle as well as Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 update, Mee preserves the basic scenario of a poor girl, Dulle Griet (winsome Jessica Frances Dukes) who becomes the surrogate mother to an abandoned baby — the love child, in this case, of the aged, soon-to-be deposed German Secretary General Erich Honecker.

She’s impressed into service as an au pair by Pamela (Naomi Jacobson), a rich American jet-setter who sees herself as the baby’s guardian, though she can hardly bear to hold the thing for more than a few minutes, much less change a diaper. The two women attempt to elude the police who want to put the baby on trial (it’s that kind of play), encountering a panoply of amusing weirdos on their way to — well, that part is never very clear.

Confused motives aside, the stuff that works, really works: In touch that feels pure Doonesbury, Financier Warren Buffet (Michael Willis) shows up as the genial bandleader of capitalism’s eastward march. The commie caricatures, meanwhile, are no more sophisticated than on Rocky and Bullwinkle, even if Sarah Marshall’s apoplectic performance as Honecker is among the show’s most immediate pleasures. The duo of Marshall and Kate Eastwood Norris is triple-cast as couples of wildly varying station, and it’s great fun to see these versatile comediennes continually reappear together.

Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz’s turn as the venerable German author/theater director Heiner Muller is an even stuntier bit of casting, but one that pays off big. Watching Shalwitz-Muller take stock of his time in the theater while on trial for his life might strike some as the height of vanity, but it’s actually one of the most affecting scenes, perhaps because it’s one of only a handful of moments during a longish evening when anything at all feels at stake.

An ambiguous climax challenges the beatific bromide “All You Need Is Love.” It’s an appropriate cap on this ambitious but muddled political parable, one that’s a lot easier to admire than it is to adore.

This review appears in today’s Examiner.

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