The Chinese Wall

by Harker Jones

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday February 7, 2018

The cast of "The Great Wall."
The cast of "The Great Wall."  

Kicking off the 44th season of the Group Rep, "The Chinese Wall" (originally "Die Chinesische Mauer") was written as a satire (and warning) about world politics and the advent of the atomic bomb way back in 1946. Scarily, our current tumultuous and ridiculous political arena makes it even more relevant today.

Penned by Swiss writer Max Frisch and translated by James L. Rosenberg (in 1962), the satirical farce directed by Larry Eisenberg takes place in China 220 B.C. while the first Chinese Emperor, Tsin Zhe Huang Ti (Mark Atha), rules with an iron fist, having just finished the construction of the Great Wall of China. A man named Contemporary (Patrick Skelton) narrates, leading us through a world of both real figures like Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Columbus and Cleopatra and fictional characters like Don Juan and Romeo and Juliet with time and space overlapping and contradicting. The play moves past its 1946 genesis right up to the present, with Emperor Ti lampooning our feckless leader Donald Trump (played as a fey, spoiled little boy), comparing the length of the Great Wall of China to the distance between Berlin and New York (which is, of course, particularly timely with Trump's insistence on building a wall between the United States and Mexico).

The 23-scene, 2-hour show is, in addition to the aforementioned farce and satire, also a warning - that history repeats itself and that we may be our own worst enemy. There's wacky humor, some nudity and pointed observations about our current state of the union and the clowns running the White House, referencing "fake news" and the #metoo movement and sometimes breaking the fourth wall. It's an illuminating snapshot of where we are and where we're going in Trump's America with his hubris and stupidity clinging proudly to ignorance.

A huge ensemble brings the absurdity to light in a small theater in North Hollywood, with Linda Alznauer as Columbus; Savannah Schoenecker as Princess Mee Lan; and especially Gina Yates as Cleopatra as standouts. Yates has an extended court scene where she sits with a haughty expression and sunglasses hiding her expressive eyes, saying nothing until the end. She's remarkable, making interesting character choices while doing what amounts to almost nothing. She's beautiful and has a fantastic presence.

While the colorful action and performers and the over-the-top zest of the production are entertaining, the show still seems a little long, even with a 10-minute intermission, and sometimes the dialogue is obscured by the music. But the point is well taken: Instead of Hitler, we may end up destroying ourselves and, essentially, civilization, over the whims of a petulant man-child. As director Eisenberg (who won the Broadway World Award for Best Director for his work on "Lost in Yonkers" at this very theater) says, "You can't solve the problems of the 21st century using methods that became obsolete in the third century A.D." But will we learn from the mistakes of the past?

"The Chinese Wall" runs through March 11 at the Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood, CA 91601. For tickets, call (818) 763-5990 or go to