When the Berlin Wall went up, many thought it couldn't last. Who could believe that people would stand for a nine-foot wedge of stone and barbed wire, manned with searchlights and guns, cutting Berlin in two, separating brother from brother?
"People get used to anything," a soldier says in the premiere of Oana-Maria Hock's "Berlin, Berlin," a UC San Diego production playing at the Mandell Weiss Center through Feb. 14. And so they do. Last year, the Berlin Wall was a quarter of a century old. And today, few talk even about the possibility of it coming down.
Hock's disturbing and memorable play takes its title and inspiration from the wall--which it never mentions by name--but it is about much more than that. It is about the walls between people that allow this or any wall to be built or, once built, to stand.
The story centers on a group headed for Berlin. There are eight to start with, three women and five men, all dressed in coats and carrying similar-looking suitcases, sturdy, square and tan. Soon after the curtain rises, a gunshot is heard. There is darkness and then an empty space next to one of the suitcases.
The remaining travelers are agitated, not because a person was killed, but because their number will certainly be counted before they are allowed to leave, and how will they explain that now there are only seven?
An opera singer on his way to Berlin walks by and they grab him, giving him the dead person's suitcase. He at first resists--he doesn't want to be slowed down in his trip to Berlin--then accedes.
A soldier comes out, a young, cheerful-looking fellow who "hopes to God" that the person he shot "didn't take it personally."
He counts, and, strangely enough, is satisfied with the number of travelers, but he tells the group new orders have come in. No one is allowed to cross the lake that leads to Berlin--at least not for the time being.
Now they are stuck where they will be for the rest of the play. They are eight strangers, a forest to the back of them and a lake to the front, with a common goal--Berlin--and a common obstacle--a soldier with a gun.
In this Kafkaesque blend of absurdity and real life, these individuals are a study in how people manage not to reveal themselves to each other, of how the concerns of daily survival can make people forget their dreams and ambitions.
And if any one of them threatens to slip into intimacy, the soldier is there to stop him.
One character, Mr. Harte, is wild to have sex, but is not willing to open himself far enough to reveal his first name. When Harte starts to confess, tearfully, why he became the sort of man he is, the soldier stops him, warning, "Sometimes in order to survive it is important not to end your sentences."
It is a challenge for an ensemble to bring cohesiveness into a study of fragmentation, but the cast pulls it off admirably. Deryl Caitlyn is comically abrasive as the luckless Harte. Cherie, the television actress who thinks her American passport is going to give her special dispensation, is played with elegant snootiness by Maggie Stewart. Julie Briskman as Eleonora, the romantic young girl forever imagining that she could have loved whatever person she could not have at the time, shows a charming spark of adolescent fervor.
The traveler-pilgrims, who also include a botanist, a philosopher and a homosexual, sparkle like varicolored beads on a string held at one end by the opera singer, forcefully played by Randy Braunberger as the hero who will not give up the dream of Berlin, and at the other by the soldier, played with steel beneath the smiles by Sean Whitesell. As long as the group does not knot--commit--itself at either end, all it takes is one hand to fall for the beads to scatter all over the floor.
The scenic design by Lucie Lortie is a nice blend of the fantastic and mundane, a painted forest meant to look like a painted forest, with quite ordinary outhouses on either side of the stage.
Lori S. Catlin's costumes succeed in giving outward expression to the inward differences in style and personality among the characters. Richard Riddell's lighting is subtle and effective, moving seamlessly from day to night, from nightmare to dream-fantasy. Michael S. Roth's original music for the dream sequence is appropriately disturbing.
This is not the first time the director, Ross S. Wasserman, has worked with playwright Hock. Last year they collaborated on the critically well-received "East European Tetralogy" at UCSD. He was committed enough to "Berlin" to travel with her and the scenic designer to research it. And this commitment shows. Wasserman manages to achieve an intense level of action that is always blackly humorous without once relying on the crutch of slapstick.
The best part of "Berlin, Berlin" is that it makes you think.
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down," wrote Robert Frost. That "something," for Frost, was physical nature, "the frozen-ground swell" that "spills the upper boulders in the sun." But physical nature in this contest has more than met its match in human nature. As long as fear, distrust and self-absorption are part of what makes us tick, it is clear that the walls will keep going up and staying up.
"BERLIN, BERLIN" By Oana-Maria Hock. Director is Ross S. Wasserman. Scenic design by Lucie Lortie. Costumes by Lori S. Catlin. Lighting by Richard Riddell. Music by Michael S. Roth. Sound Design by David Leyton and Michael S. Roth. With Maria Porter, Deryl Caitlyn, Shishir Kurup, Maggie Stewart, Brad Cottrill, Patrick Miller, Julie Briskman, Randy Braunberger and Sean Whitesell. At 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Closes Feb. 14. At the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts, at UCSD in La Jolla.