Berlin: Or the Part of you that Wants it - O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre)
Berlin: or The Part of you that Wants it: A Musical Comedy Love Story (Written by accident) – O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre)
Review by James Wilkinson
Produced by O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre). Written by Shaoul Rick Chason. Directed by Pete Riesenberg. Costumes by Becca Jewett. Lighting by Jakob Weisblat. Set, Props, Sound, Music And Graphics by the company.
I suppose that the first thing to say is that this play isn’t going to be everyone’s proverbial cup of tea. And you know what, that’s fine (the best pieces of art almost never are). As much as theater companies love to promote that their work is provocative or dangerous, in my own humble experience it’s rare to go to a theater piece that genuinely follows through on that claim. All too often well-meaning playwrights produce works that can pretty much be boiled down to simple, easy-to-get-behind slogans. “War is bad.” “The poor deserve better.” “Homosexuals are people too.” All of these statements may be true, but I often get the feeling that audience members who patronize these theaters already knew these things. And if that’s the case, then what exactly is getting provoked?
Then, every once in a while, you come across a theater piece that not only follows through on the claim of provocation, but actually seems to revel in taking the audience into a kamikaze nose dive to the uncomfortable spaces most of us avoid. This past week I saw O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre)’s production of Shaoul Rick Chason’s Berlin: or The Part of you that Wants it: A Musical Comedy Love Story (Written by Accident). That title is a mouthful and only provides a glimmer of the full throttle approach to its subject matter. The play is many things, an outrageous black camp comedy, a politically incorrect screed shouted through a bullhorn, a madcap international farce, a Molotov cocktail gleefully tossed towards our ideas of gender. Most importantly, though, it is a serious attempt to address serious issues through art and for that alone it is worth both attention and consideration.
Perhaps best to start at the beginning. The plot of Berlin (for brevity’s sake, from here on I’ll refer to the play by its first title), begins with our protagonist Howard Nemerod, an openly misogynistic, rape-inclined American businessman, checking into a hotel somewhere in Berlin, Germany. While on a dinner date with a crystal meth addicted, underage sex worker, he realizes that he doesn’t have the money to pay for dinner and the pair flee the restaurant Bonnie-and-Clyde-style to rob eight billion dollars from a bank. Then Howard’s hooker is killed, but not before the two swap outfits, putting Howard in a dress and heels for the rest of the adventure. He makes his way through Berlin as a group of radical violent lesbian feminists overtake the city and begin castrating all of the men. From there, (if you can believe it) everything cranks up to eleven until eventually Howard is summoning the Anti-Christ in hopes of raising an army of the undead to fight the new lesbian regime. Along the way we’re treated to a barrage of bad taste jokes on just about every taboo topic you can think of. Basically, imagine if John Waters had decided to produce his own Saturday morning cartoon.
As you can probably tell from that description, Berlin embraces an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink attitude, but it never swerves uncontrolled chaos. I think that there’s a lot of artistic precedent for what’s happening on stage. The slapstick humor and madcap energy would certainly be in line with a showdown between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. You also don’t have to look too closely to see that much of Berlin’s general aesthetic and framing device come straight from Brecht. The events of the play are announced with title cards before each scene and the whole evening is presented as a kind of back room cabaret show. I’d argue though, that the Brecht influence is far more than skin deep. Like Brecht, playwright Chason seems to be taking an approach to character that’s much more presentational in nature and which keeps the audience somewhat at a distance from what’s happening on stage. I don’t think you’re meant to necessarily empathize with the characters in a way that you would in other plays. (Not that you have much time to, given how quickly many of them expire). The dialogue is much less focused on letting the characters interact with each other than in allowing them to indulge rambling monologues filled with progressive analytical buzzwords. It’s also played at such a fast that brings to mind Ionesco’s theatre of the absurd where language appears to break down and begin to lose meaning.
Oh…and it’s funny. I suppose I should reiterate that lest it gets lost in the shuffle. Thankfully I’m in possession of a sense of humor just twisted enough to spend the entire evening giggling at what was happening on stage. This is a testament not just to the writing but to the wonderfully manic energy that the cast bring to their roles. Director Pete Riesenberg has done a great job getting everyone to leave their inhibitions at the door and just go for broke. As Howard Nemerod, Eric McGowan is the only actor playing a consistent character throughout the entire evening, which makes him the glue that holds the play together. I think he shoulders the responsibility well while also digging into Nemerod’s more repugnant behavior. Bouncing around him with frenzied comic glee are Erin Reilly and Patrick McCarthy playing about ten characters each. They’re a joy to watch. As the play progresses and becomes more and more bonkers, each seems determined to top what they were able to do in the previous scene and the result is hilarious.
Okay, but what is this all in service of? Well, I think that playwright Chason is interested in what happens when cultural narratives are constructed. The final moments of the play take a much more serious turn (for spoiler reasons I won’t go into it here), which questions what to do when reality doesn’t match up to the story we’ve all been sold. In an essay posted on the O.W.I website, Chason says that he wrote the play “out of a desire to critique a new trend in leftist movements toward an unwillingness to accept criticism and their self-righteous creation of a new status quo of social etiquette...” It’s a bold question to grapple with, especially as the culture is reassessing our collective responsibility to sexual assault and violence. What happens when one narrative is destroyed, only to be replaced with another? If the new fails to make allowances for individual human experience, what are the consequences?
I realize that this play won’t be to everyone’s taste; that some audience members just won’t be able to go along on the particular journey that this play is taking. I can’t blame anyone for that nor would I look to. I can only report back on my own experience which is that I had a blast basking in the punk rock spirit that put this play together. It’s a wild ride, but one with a serious edge to it. I’m not asking you to like it, or to agree with it. I’m asking you to take it seriously and consider it.
Berlin is playing at Central Square Theatre, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA, April 19-May 12, 2018.
For tickets and more information visit O.W.I.’s website: www.officeofwarinformation.com/current-production/