Theater Review: “Berlin …” — Polymorphous Perversity

The script is symptomatic of the Trump era: a passionate rejection of the “politically correct” pushes warriors for “freedom,” as well as voices of radicalism, into morally despicable positions.

Berlin; or, The Part of You That Wants It: A Musical Comedy Love Story (Written by Accident) by Shaoul Rick Chason.  Directed by Pete Riesenberg. Staged by O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre) at Central Square Theatre, 450 MASS Ave, Cambridge, MA, through May 12.

Donya Yeganeh, Erin Reilly, and Cullan Powers in O.W.I.’s production of “Berlin.” Photo: courtesy of O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre).

By Bill Marx

You have to credit Berlin; or, The Part of You That Wants It: A Musical Comedy Love Story (Written by Accident) with more than just the ‘Strangelove-ian’ prolixity of its title. Local theaters claim that they are staging “provocative” or “boundary busting” work but, inevitably, most of it has been generated by MFA-trained dramatists who have been carefully groomed to calibrate just how far to confront the sensibilities of left-leaning audiences without drawing blood. You don’t want to upset fat cat liberal or conservative donors, do you? Edginess has pretty much become a matter of branding. Proclaim that you are taking chances and then have a few audience talkbacks in which journalists and artists chat about taking risks – that seems to be enough.

So it is refreshing, though ultimately a pyrrhic victory, to congratulate dramatist Shaoul Rick Chason and O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre) on its world premiere staging of a play that turns out to be morally repugnant — or at least leans strongly in that dark direction. Berlin … is an irreverent satiric farce in the Joe Orton/ Charles Ludlum mode of polymorphous perversity, reveling in gender-bending and –breaking anarchy, dedicated to tastelessness for the sake of reflecting the Id-ish disorder of sexuality. But the play dares to go a step beyond those scripts, moving into the realm of amorality. In this case, selling a markedly genial attitude to rape and pedophilia.

For me, the script is symptomatic of the Trump era, in which passionate rejection of “political correctness” pushes right-wing warriors fighting for “freedom,” as well as left-wing voices of radicalism, into heinously despicable positions. For Trump and his followers, it is ok to torture a suspected terrorist or to kill a terrorist’s family members. Objections to collateral damage are signs of weakness. In this play, hatred of sexual “political correctness” generates a ludicrous response; those who want to speak up for the value of rape and pedophilia are being repressed, silenced. They are just another trampled upon minority that needs to be heard from. And in Berlin … we do.

The roller-coaster plot itself is, at least in part, a fantastical send-up of ‘feminism’ triumphant. Vacationing in a time-scrambled Berlin, self-proclaimed pedophile and Utah citizen Howard Nemerov (the name of the fine American poet/critic, who was also photographer Diane Arbus’ brother) is having a high-ho time brow-beating the help at his hotel. He meets a femme fatale who doesn’t have an objection to rape. But then a revolution breaks out in the city — mobs of rabid feminists are lopping off dicks. How does a guy protect his pecker? Howard dons a red dress, sports a machine gun, and runs about the city, encountering riffraff and friendly femme fatales (who share his laid-back attitudes about rape). About halfway through the show, the gates of Hell open up and Howard’s latest woman/protector has sex with the Devil. She gives birth to the Anti-Christ, who wants Howard to become his/her concubine throughout eternity.

Chason’s dialogue is not as snappy as it should be for these kinds of absurdist goings-on, but there is some real amusement here. Performers Patrick McCarthy and Erin Reilly bring plenty of chameleonic zip to their cross-dressing characterizations of a myriad of cartoon characters, my favorite being McCarthy’s frazzled feminist warrior. She thought she would enjoy being a lesbian. But now, with all the dicks in town chopped off, she is having panicked second thoughts. Maybe she has made a mistake? Reilly plays a succession of charismatic bad girls who, for some inscrutable reason, are loyal to Howard. As the anti-hero, Eric McGowan is nothing if not irritating — and not much else. Some charm, or at least a touch of introspection, would have been welcome. Why should everyone around Howard end up dead when clearly this brute deserves oblivion? Maybe that is part of Chason’s joke – the men who survive mass castration will be worthless.

And that brings us to the weird, distasteful end of Berlin …. McCarthy steps out of character and asserts that he is now speaking for the playwright (???), who had an agreeable rape experience. He argues there are positive aspects of rape (for some) and they are being overlooked in our age of political correctness run amok. Judgment is relative: who knows how our morals/laws will change in the centuries to come? The possibilities of pedophilia are touched on as well. Granted, this is supposed to be a wild, nothing-is-sacred farce, and maybe this speech is not supposed to be taken seriously. But, in the era of #MeToo (Bill Cosby was recently convicted of drugging and then raping women), this is a pernicious, even horrifying, message. Victimizers are at the center of this play; we don’t hear from anyone who is raped. Howard is left untouched — castration is seen as a very bad thing. But who knows? Maybe we should check in with Berlin’s new born eunuchs about the pleasures of their sex lives. If rape can be ok, so is forced castration. Director Pete Risenberg tries to keep the proceedings playful, but disgust at the script’s objectionable poppycock overwhelms. Primal Directive: playwrights should reserve their iconoclasm for the powerful — not the powerless.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. Shaoul Rick Chason on April 30, 2018 at 6:55 pm

    Thank your for your review, Bill. As the playwright I obviously stand by the moral quality of Berlin, otherwise I wouldn’t have written the play or allowed it to be produced, but I appreciate your response to the issues at hand. And as a former critic myself, I 1) appreciate your work immensely and 2) realize it’s considered improper for an artist to respond to a critic, but that’s always struck me as a silly convention.

    What confuses me about this review is your statement that “we don’t hear from anyone who is raped” through the course of the play. Many of the characters in Berlin have been raped. Howard refers to having been molested by his aunt and uncle, the Lady in Yellow had been systematically assaulted by the pansexual pornographers in her home, the Escort is taken off by a Demon against her will, &etc. Most significantly, we have the confessional monologue near the end of the play to which you objected on moral grounds.

    You’re the first person I’ve heard question whether we’re supposed to take seriously that confessional part of the play. I can’t control how any individual responds or interprets any element of the play, but I’m fascinated by your questioning of it and your assertion that we don’t hear from rape victims in the piece. To be clear, that monologue is 100% true, confessional, parts of it are taken verbatim from things I said in real life during rehearsal, and my intent with it is to frame the entirety of the play as a personal response to American culture FROM THE PERSPECTIVE of a rape victim (myself). Do you mean to question the reality of what happened to me?

    It just strikes me as fascinating that in the age of #MeToo, when people perceived as men have such difficulty being taken seriously as victims of rape, that you see this play written by someone who was raped as failing to represented the raped of our society.

  2. Bill Marx on April 30, 2018 at 7:45 pm

    First off, we both agree that the convention that artists and critics should not exchange views is ridiculous. As long as the responses are reasonable and serious, a dialogue is welcome.

    Maybe I didn’t articulate my point clearly enough in the review: characters tell us that they have been raped, but none of their pain or trauma is dramatized. Howard and others who refer to how they had been raped treat the experience with a cavalier attitude. The Devil’s rape of the Escort is a good example of your diminishment of the experience — the event takes place off stage, and when the Devil returns it is used to trigger a broad comic routine about the size and effectiveness of His member and His wan love-making power. The degradation of rape is absent because the Escort has been reduced to a second banana, there to make the Devil squirm. That is what I meant by your not taking the victims of rape seriously in the script.

    As for your confessional monologue detailing rape, I believe you completely. I don’t question the reality of your experience. But the speech is part of your play, and it is filled with lots of meta-theatrical bits — characters referring to the script, etc. Pirandello said that the stage is where illusions of reality are manufactured. The more ‘real’ something on stage insists that it is the more ‘unreal’ it might be. Couldn’t your confession be a ‘fictional’ part of the farce? It is a reasonable assumption. Also, the whiplash of the play’s tone contributes to the confusion: within minutes, rape as a comic routine is followed by rape for real.

    I take the experience of those who have been raped very seriously — I wish your play had done so with more moral integrity. Thanks for writing.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts