Peter Rose Hits the Wall With ‘Berlin Zoo’

Don’t let the term fool you. Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor theater” is anything but mean. It is physical, sensual and even manic--like the performance art of Peter Rose, a former student at Grotowski’s Polish Lab Theatre.

It was about 10 years ago, on his way to the Lab Theatre, that Rose first visited the Berlin Wall. Years later he returned to Europe, touring West Germany with his performance piece “Berlin Zoo"in 1985 and 1986.

Setting fantastic riffs and cold reckonings alike against the steely tensions of the partitioned city, Rose’s “Berlin Zoo” recounts a long, strange trip toward self-knowledge and a vision of a unified Europe.

“ ‘Berlin Zoo’ is about the demographic reality of a city that’s divided,” he explains. “At the same time, the piece is also about the split within (its) protagonist.”


Rose, a founder of New York’s Performance Space 122, has presented his solo work across the United States for the past 10 years.

The L.A. premiere of “Berlin Zoo” takes place at Highways in Santa Monica Thursday, Friday, July 13, 14, 22 and 29, then continues in August at the Powerhouse Theatre. The production is directed by Patricia Pretzinger, with visuals by Daniel J. Martinez.

Centered around an actor’s odyssey in Berlin--as he’s thrown out of a theater and moves on to various exotic situations--the movement, song and highly theatrical Yiddish style of “Berlin Wall” explore the 1961 barrier’s effect on the city.

Its implicit theme, however, is more personal.


“One has to find the wall within oneself in order to bring it down and move closer to who one really is,” says Rose.

That search is expressed by way of his character’s travels. “Fictions exist not only within (the character), but also within the people he encounters--such as the Turkish women who teach him prayers.

“The realistic events mix with fantasy. He invites some elephants to the base of the Wall to have a big party and knock the wall down,” Rose explains.

“And he ends up somewhat later on a Persian carpet, from which he jumps down and proclaims himself the king of a new unified city. But of course there isn’t such a unification and there can’t be a new king.”


Rose’s intuitions about Berlin are the thread that binds all these adventures and anecdotes together. “The thematic drive comes from the creative processes involved in communicating the nature of the cityscape of Berlin,” he offers.

It’s an archly European environment. “The sense of borders is intensified in Europe where travel plays a different role in the culture and in tradition than it does here,” Rose says.

The wall, however, is the chief source of tension.

“Systems themselves aren’t less or more repressive,” Rose asserts. “It’s the wall itself that oppresses and things that have very much to do with the wall, like the bondage of poverty and hunger.”


So inhabitants look inward for escape, turning to song and other means of expression integral to Yiddish theater. “The spirituality expressed through song runs hick and nook with the duality within oneself,” says Rose. “And that (duality) exists most obviously when walls are put up.”

Including walls that have to do with being an American Jew in Berlin. “The character is Jewish,” Rose explains. “But it’s not clear that he’s a Jew in the religious sense of the word.”

Which, while not autobiographical, does relate to Rose’s own experience. He says his time in Berlin made him “reunderstand a certain naivete I’d had. I held this vision in my heart about European culture being innately such a part of the Jewish experience, but it wasn’t that (way) once I was there.

“I had a lot in common with the young Germans I found there. And being Jewish was not the (main) factor (in those interactions), nor what this piece is essentially about.


“I found I could be what I am--Jewish--and not have any need to hide or be defined solely in terms of that. People didn’t react to me as much as a Jew as to an American,” he explains.

“The conflicts between that which is Jewish and that which is German are not answered solely in terms of the Holocaust,” says Rose. “My freedom from Judaism became apparent later.”

“Berlin Zoo” is not a Jewish liberation play,” he insists, “but it is a liberation play.”

Liberation, Rose reminds you, comes of self-knowledge. “The character meets all these people in the process of meeting himself. Having discovered himself, he also finds (his) potential.”


But, he says, you’re stuck until you’ve crossed these boundaries.