BWW Review: Group Rep Presents Rare View of THE CHINESE WALL
Suffice to say, The Chinese Wall by Max Frisch, written in 1946, after Hitler and World War II, is a cluttered play about fascism and those who revolt against it. Its message is repetitious, and the play goes on much too long, but Group Rep's vibrantly colorful production boasts a wonderful cast of 20 actors under the superb direction of Larry Eisenberg through March 11.
The play takes place in China in 220 BC during the reign of tyrannical Emperor Tzhin Zhe Huang Ti (Mark Atha) and moves around in time and space to include many historical figures right up to present day with the comparison of Huang Ti to President Donald Trump. Although Trump is obviously not written into the script, his face is projected on screens throughout the storyline. Figures like Christopher Columbus (Linda Alznauer), Napoleon (Kevin Hoffman Jr.), Philip II of Spain (Hersha Parady), Pontius Pilate (Steve Shaw), Brutus (David Joseph Keller) and Cleopatra (Gina Yates) find themselves ignorant and ineffective in their individual predicaments. History repeats itself. As stated in the script, "the farce begins once more". A Contemporary (Patrick Skelton) narrates the piece and guides his audience - us - to recognize the failures and try to transform, so as to carry on with the tiniest glimmer of hope for the future.
It's a wacky play that has insanely deviant humor. It reminded me of a huge Saturday Night Live sketch where the characters rant and rave about revolution and reform, but go no further than to make us laugh through their ineptitude and stupidity. The repetition does get tedious after a while, though, and we wish the play over long before its two and a half hour run. On a positive note, the cast and direction save the day. Atha is genius casting. With his over.the.top bragging that he is number one and will overthrow any opposition from the people, he hits the mark. When a mute is accused of leading the revolution (John Ledley), he is tortured, clearly showing that Huang Ti does not have the slightest inclination of what he is doing. Atha literally lies down and rolls around in the Emperor's ridiculousness. It's a delightful performance. Right behind him in spunk but not without bewilderment is his daughter the Princess Mee Lan, beautifully rendered by Savannah Schoenecker. Objecting to her marriage to the Prince (Nick Paonessa), she finds herself falling in love with the Contemporary.
Other standouts in the ensemble are Cynthia Bryant as the mute's mother; Alznauer and Parady who are delicious in a variety of roles - Parady shining as the executioner; Todd Andrew Ball as the Emperor's toad; Hisato Masuyama-Ball so deliriously funny in his first erratic entrance as the Herald and ... Gina Yates gloriously over-conniving as Cleopatra. She makes her first entrance showing her lovely bare breasts, something that most actors despise doing. She is courageous and so amusing as the grande seductress. Praise to one and all, proving that this is indeed an ensemble effort. One negative comment about the young actor playing Romeo, Brent Anthony! He needs to use clearer diction, as it was impossible to understand a word he said opening night.
As to Larry Eisenberg's keen direction, he has staged the piece meticulously, providing the perfect pace throughout. Chris Winfield has designed an appropriately functional set and Angela M. Eads' costumes are colorfully evocative.
Go see The Chinese Wall and revel in Eisenberg's artistic choices and a great ensemble effort, through March 11.
(photo credit: Doug Engalla)