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Berlin Zoo

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Up Against The Berlin Wall
by Jan Breslauer

"Berlin Zoo"

written and performed by Peter Rose
directed by Patricia Pretzinger
visual design by Daniel J. Martinez

Los Angeles Weekly, July, 1989

 

 

Berlin Diary: Peter Rose tells his own zoo story

Oh, the actor's life. Lee Strasberg titled his book about the development of Method Acting A Dream of Passion," after the passage from Hamlet: 'Is it not monstrous that this player here,/But in a fiction, in a dream of passion/Could force his soul so to his own conceit.' Hamlet marvels at the fabulous, mysterious deception of it all-that in the "middle" of a fiction the actor summons up his emotions at will, to fit the circumstances. Hamlet probably also knew that the siren call of the stage exacts a heavy price from thos who give their lives to such a pursuit. The stage is a jealous Muse.

Some things don't change. Many's the thespian who's tried to give an original bent to the woes of the boards, but few are the ones who've gone beyond self-indulgence and self-pity in describing the ins and outs of actordom. And even fewer are those who've managed to connect their own odysseys to something universal or topical. But like Istvan Szavbo's film "Mephisto"-which sets the dilemma of the actor against the onslaught of Nazism-Peter Rose's "Berlin Zoo" succeeds at meshing the personal with the political. His is an athletic solo born of inner turmoil, less one man's journey than a meditation on the role of boundaries and limitations in all our lives.

The story begins as the actor-protagonist of "Berlin Zoo" is setting props and going about preparations for his show. Then, almost immediately, he finds himself banished from the theater in which he was to perform and spend the night. This sets him on an exile's journey through a series of encounters that range from the surreal to the too real, from elephants and flying carpets to passport hassles. En route, looking for a place to crash, he finds himself in a circus lot, at The Berlin Wall, in a bar, in a hostel, in jail and elsewhere. He meets people and animals who provide him with new kowledge and new understanding of The Wall and its environs. These aencounters are emblematic of his inner quest-for identity and self-knowledge-which has been impeded only by his own failures of comprehension, dividing self from self as The Wall divides Berlin from Berlin.

Rose recounts this walkabout in a highly physicalized, sensual dance movement. He is his own Brechtian device: stopping the action just where you least anticipate it to launch into an incongruous riff of Yiddish song and dance, or taking a 360-degree turn in the course of the story. Yiddish and German language interpolations appear throughout, and there are segments from Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" and Buchner's "Lenz" as well. All of this is delivered with intensity that reflects Rose's training with Jerzy Grotowski's Polish Laboratory Theatre.

What lingers, however, is not just the passion with which Rose imbues his Symbolist tale, nor his performing prowess, but the sense you get of his state of mind when he first wrote it. ("Berlin Zoo" premiered in New York in 1983, and was inspired in part by Rose's visits to Europe in the early 80's) As a document of a time in Rose's life when he was odds with himself, "Berlin Zoo" is harrowing. It confronts us with an all-to-familiar schizophrenia, an individual's longing and quest for grounding in a fundamentally ungrounded world. He is at once manic and clairvoyant, finding truth in the precarious perch between acceptance of things as they are (normal sanity) and resistance to the world (activism or insanity, depending on how you look at it.

The source of Rose's character's pain and vision-and at some level the source of Rose's own, although this isn't literal autobiography-is The Wall, or rather that monument as the outward expression of his inner state. It reads as a dividing line: between us and them, between here and there, between what is and what could be. And while the original impetus for this rumination on the idea of boundaries was other thatn Rose's current life in L.A., the resonances of such a symbole in late 80's Los Angeles are undeniable.

In the broadest sense, Rose's evocation of The Wall calls in to question the staturs of the 28-year ild barrier. Even Gorbachev has given lip service to the possibility that The Wall no longer serves its purpose. (Officially, to keep out Western spies and saboteurs; in reality to staunch the East's post-war brain drain.) And there is, for the first time, a chance that it will be dismantled in our lifetimes. But more important, The Berlin Wall has to stand, for anyone in Southern California, as a reminder of borders and barriers closer at hand, and of the battlegrounds to the south that the site of myriad deaths per year. Like The Berlin Wall, much of the U.S.-Mexico border is an artificial separation, a convenience exploited by those who relax and tighten its grasp at the economic need suits.

What this has to do with us-as Rose's performance implies-is that the presence of such boundaries affects people on both sides of the border. Californians enjoy an economy predicated on the suffering of others, people who face a labor market that lets them in or shuts them out as it pleases. To live in L.A. is to live at the point at which the U.S. meets the Third World, and whether we choose to acknowledge the emotional toll of witnessing such an inhumane situation, it's going to be that much harder to resolve the contradictions within ourselves: man's inhumanity to man has everything to do with man's inhumanity to himself.

Such an imperative is necessarily revolutionary, entirely counter to the traditional Westwern separation of the personal body from the body politic. And yet, in the age of AIDS, how can anyone deny the connection between individual illness and willful government negligence? Rose too argues for an understanding of the relationship between our personal lives and the political context in which we live. And he does this by using the actor's quest as aa mirror of all our alienation-in the Marxist sense-from our true pursuits. Denying his character the theater is akin to denying a citizen rights to health, to the freedom to go where he or she wants to, and, as Marx would say, to re-create himself by earning a living.

In the last scene of "Berlin Zoo", our hero finds himself in a Salvation Army hostel, looking for a place to spend the night with only his sleeping bag and the pink slip that suffices for a passport in hand. The male nurse who takes his two marks has red hairr and wears a green outfit. Conveniently, this surreal attendant asks Rose what he does. "My name is Yisrolik, a child of the ghetto," the voyager replies, "I'm called Yisrolik, a free and easy lad. And though I'm clean and haven't got a thing. I still can whistle and I still can sing," he chants. And then, more for our benefit and his own than the nurse's, he complete his wanderings with a simple manifesto of identity: "I'm an actor. In the theater."

 

 

 

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