Chicago Theater Review: CIRCLE-MACHINE (Oracle)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 25, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Oracle Theatre, Chicago’s 44-seat public-access venue where tickets are free, just unleashed another populist piledriver. It’s a play with several sources. Adapted by Emma Stanton, Nigel O’Hearn, and Thom Pasculi from a drama assembled by collage-composer Charles Mee, Circle-Machine unavoidably channels Bertolt Brecht’s proletarian parable The Caucasian Chalk Circle. That episodic work itself draws upon a 13th-century zaju play from China. The ultimate origin is the Bible’s saga of King Solomon wisely (what else with him?) adjudicating who is the true mother in a dispute between contending parents.

DeChantel Kosmatka in CIRCLE-MACHINE. photo by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux inc.

Clearly (or rather not), a once-simple cautionary tale has passed through a lot of hands before it reached the corner of Broadway and Grace. It’s not so direct or compact anymore. The anarchic setting is now 1989, after the fall of the Iron Curtain and its physical manifestation the Berlin Wall. The pell-mell events chronicle both the symbolic and actual journey of Pamela (energetic DeChantel Kosmatka), a privileged American tourist who gives in to common decency, and Dulle Griet (sad-faced Stephanie Shum), the local girl she hires as an au pair.

CIRCLE-MACHINE, photo by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux inc.

These unintended heroines accidentally acquire the unnamed baby of former East German dictator Erich Honecker (Ryan David Heywood) and his feckless spouse Christa (Simina Contras). Reflexively fleeing, they embark on a fateful trek from Berlin to Dresden to find freedom for this innocent, rather than letting him become collateral damage during a regime change. Weirdly, they steal ancient Rome’s massive Pergamon Altar from its namesake museum in Berlin, grab a truck, abandon it to brave a perilous rope ladder across “the abyss”—and still manage to face even more privations before apprehension. Pamela also meets her former lover Warren (Martel Manning), presumably to revisit some unfinished passion.

CIRCLE-MACHINE, photo by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux inc.

Anyway that’s the structure and through-line for this picaresque plot. As always, it’s presented in the “epic theater” style of the Berliner Ensemble, with placards announcing act changes and a presentational playfulness that makes it more metaphorical than material. Along the way there’s a searing encounter with avant-garde director Heiner Muller (Kevin V. Smith), who offers a long, anguished and gratuitous apology for his collaboration with the Stasi secret police. (Apparently, with his “non-political” revivals of protest plays, a bourgeois Muller silenced the Berliner Ensemble’s Brechtian advocacy to get along with the commissars in East Berlin.)

The four-part play ends inconclusively with a seminal trial in a magic circle to determine the true mother. It is, Pasculi’s staging suggests, up to the audience to determine the legitimacy of the best guardian.

CIRCLE-MACHINE - photo by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux inc.

The payoff here, it seems, is the conflict over the custody of the child. But in this 95-minute emotional travelogue it’s frustratingly uncertain just what’s at stake. Given no overview of so many non-causal happenings, the audience seldom feels ahead of the action—and often struggles to catch up.

That doesn’t negate—in fact, it all but requires—Oracle’s usual inventive urgency. Behind everything on stage you sense a collective conscience/consciousness that redeems what seems random. Nicholas Tonozzi’s reliable score ups the ante for every scene. Efficiently manipulating a host of props, big and small, the 11-member cast tears into this quandary with fanatical fervor: No question, they know what they’re doing even if we don’t know why.

photos by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux inc.
poster design by Evelyn DeHais

Oracle Productions
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway
Fri, Sat, and Mon at 8; Sun at 7
ends on March 14, 2015
admission is FREE in Public Access Theatre
for tickets visit

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