“Born down in a dead man’s town/
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground/
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much/
‘Til you spend half your life just coverin’ up”
– Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA”
People forget that things only changed recently. We have this idea of “history” being something so archaic and distant that even those who lived through many important events are regarded curiously for revealing so. Within my own lifetime homosexuality has been officially refuted as a mental disorder (by the American Psychological Association in 1987, then by the World Health Organization in 1992), which only seems… slightly unthinkable today. South Africa emerged from apartheid, which seems all the more likely to reoccur today. I’ve lived through such major disasters as the Challenger disaster, the SF Quake of ’89, and two failed businessmen made into Republican presidents (the other one was Dubya). The problem with succumbing to The ‘End of History’ Illusion is that it leads one to repeating history’s worst events. Frederich Engels and Karl Marx had a saying about repetitive history – perhaps you’ve heard it?
Speaking of Karl Marx and the year 1989, last year also marked the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. That tangible manifestation of the battle between the world’s largest superpowers was permanently destroyed on the 9th of November 1989. With it went half-a-century’s worth of tension that the entire world might be wiped out in one radioactive fell swoop because two countries were committed to a dick-measuring contest. Sure, this would eventually lead to a failed businessman stealing the White House due to Russian undermining of the US democratic process, but at the time of the Wall’s collapse, the world breathed a sigh of relief.
But that was the end result; getting to that point was a long, arduous journey. The constant finger-wagging between the grotesquely decadent Westerners and their stodgy totalitarian counterparts (as they often described one another) made meeting one another halfway a tricky prospect. It’s that very sort of negotiation that Rogelio Martinez attempts to dramatize in his new play, Born in East Berlin. Yes, the title is a nod to the Jersey boy known simply as “The Boss”. Specifically, it’s about the lead-up to his late-planned 1988 world tour stop in the eponymous Eastern Bloc.
The negotiations are represented by an American record label rep whose name is only said once in the entire play, so it’s okay if you miss it. It’s ‘Anne’, by the way; played by Ash Malloy, most recently of the Playhouse’s Dance Nation. In that play, she and her teammates had to deal with the pressures of high parental expectation. Here, she has to curb her IDGaF attitude in the hopes of making headway with a room full of stiff-lipped Commies who don’t understand the term “iceberg lettuce”. With her heavily-dyed hair brutish Western ways, her German host, “Brad” (Patrick Andrew Jones), often responds to her as would a parent to their naughty child.
Parallel to this story is that of German teens Katja (Isabel Langen) and boyfriend Gerhard (Griffin O’Connor), both fans of American rock. Katja’s more publicly reserved in her affinity, but Gerhard is the type to openly wear a denim jacket adorned with the logos of Western bands, and who fiddles with the rabbit ears of his tv in order to pick up Mtv’s from European airwaves. The idea of one of the biggest Western rock stars making his way to their part of the world sparks a change in their relationship neither of them saw coming.
Finally, we have the budding romance of Hugbert (Christopher Reber) and Alix (Wera von Wulfen, probably the only proper German in the entire cast). Hugbert briefly served as the bellhop in Anne’s hotel, until she styled his hair and his superiors took umbrage. Alix is a woman of secrets, but her affection for Hugbert at least appears genuine.
If it seems as though the above description focuses more on character than plot, that’s because Martinez’s script is strongest when does the same. The concert being a recorded historical event, Martinez feels somewhat tethered to an inevitable event rather than expanding on it. Indeed, the ending to the play – which takes place in the aftermath of the concert – feels rushed and awkward. The strength of the text comes from coloring in the lines of the lives of the people for whom a “simple” rock concert is a potential international incident.
One of the best scenes is when Anne is taken to her hotel room and begins to chat with Hugbert, whose curiosity about her hair leads to her spraying his. “That’s toxic!”, he yells. “Yeah,” she replies, “it’s the good kinda toxic.” They have fun, but it immediately stops when Hugbert remembers that the hotel room is bugged. Another great exchange – probably the best one to feature Martinez’s dialogue – is one in which Anne and ‘Brad’ have it out. She criticizes the stall tactics he and his comrades are using, he criticizes the “starving artist” mentality of the West that refuses to compensate those who deserve it. It leads to them connecting with one another over a story of her witnessing that sort of equality at a park where she grew up. It makes you want to know more about these characters, regardless of what brought them together.
And Margarett Perry’s cast do quite well in their roles. von Wulfen being the only proper German, the rest of the cast can be a mixed bag in terms of their accents. Still, they make their characters likable when need be. Artistic Director Bill English designed the set, and it’s a fine small-scale recreation of the Berlin Wall. Not “small” as in This-is-Spinal-Tap’s-mini-Stonehenge, but rather a scaled-down version with barbed wire snaking along the top. The upstage wall becomes a playground for Teddy Hulsker’s projections, including the Wall covered in graffiti, the aisles of a library, and even a showcase for actual footage from Springsteen’s ’88 concert. Hulsker also designed the sounds, which include the chilling use of gunshots near the wall.
The best part about seeing an in-development work is that you can not only identify room for improvement, said improvement may actually be implemented. Born in East Berlin’s conflict of plot and character are best exemplified by the way it tries to suggest a happy ending. Yes, the inevitable fall of the Wall is great for the world, but few (if any) of these characters should end this play ecstatic for what the future holds. As near as they can see, the days after the concert are a return to the status quo. A better reflection of the harshness surrounding them might be more of a downer, but would be more true to their character arcs.
The play has potential and the cast are mostly up to the task. It’s the story itself that’s in danger of collapsing.
Born in East Berlin is scheduled to run until the 29th of February at the Children’s Creativity Museum of Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.