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A CurtainUp Review
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
By Elyse Sommer
Besides their continued relevancy, Brecht's plays are magnets for fresh translations and, since music is a key Brechtian element, new songs. The Classic Stage's current production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle features a new translation as well as as a new song writer.
Translators James and Tania Stern have meshed the ancient Grusinia uprising with the downfall of Stalin's Soviet Union. The set by Tony Straiges visually sums up the outcome of both the Grusinian and Russian revolutions. It's dominated by the Governor's severed head, his toppled statue, and a huge banner showing the Coca-Cola bottle replacing the Hammer and Sickle. Chairs and a child's rocking horse suspended from the ceiling and the suitcases and trunks that serve as props are metaphors for the way war displaces the powerful and powerless. The scenery is so effective that the Sterns' starting things off with dialogue in Russian seems an unnecessary device.
The CSC production pairs its song writer, the very much alive Duncan Sheik, with W. H. Auden as his lyricist. The songs, while not on a par with Sheik's score for the hit musical Spring Awakening, do fit the mood of the play. Since this is very much an ensemble play, most are aptly written for the ensemble,
The cast consists of just seven actors all of whom play multiple roles. The exception is Elizabeth A. Davis who plays the pivotal role of Grusha, the servant girl whose story bookends the play's many threads. Davis, a Tony Award nominee for her performance in the hit musical Once does full justice to the solos Sheik has composed for her.
Not surprisingly, veteran musical theater performer Mary Testa enhances the ensemble songs with her powerful voice and vividly conveys the arrogance of the Governor's wife (the first and most important of her three characters). The role of the unlikely judge who gets to play Robin Hood to the poor and the chance to decide whether Grusha can continue to raise little Michael or give him up to the mother who needs the child to reclaim her husband's estate, is played with great gusto by Christopher Lloyd.
CSC artistic director Brian Kulick steers the actors through the overthrow of the Grusinian leaders; the kitchen maid Grusha's rescue of the infant son abandoned by her employer, the Governor's wife; to the ultimate chalk circle trial to determine whether that child is better off with her or his natural mother who's returned to claim him in order to reclaim the Governor's estate.
I won't try to relate all the complications following the initial revolution to the end of the demise of the hoped for more liberal "golden" period. Essentially it's a parable about Grusha, a simple peasant who becomes a better mother to a baby boy than the woman who bore him. The plot follows her flight to the mountains and her many trials and tribulations along the way that include a mock marriage.
The new translation, songs and merger of the ancient and Kremlin revolutions have not prevented director Brian Kulick and his actors from taking us into Brecht's world of Epic Theater with its typical introduction of music and audience interaction. At one point, when Grusha is about to be married, Tom, the play's narrator and interpreter, solicits volunteers from the audience to act as wedding guests since he explains that the producers have not provided enough actors.
Humorous episodes like that audience participation wedding scene and an audience sing-along clarify how this last major Brecht work incorporates his stylistic and thematic hallmarks but without being as intensely tragic (or as moving) Mother Courage and her Children. As Classic Stage's always fascinating enrichment insert points out, the plays so fairy tale-like happy ending also reflects the influence of years Brecht spent in Hollywood.
Brecht's own attempt to reconcile how the urge for freedom as something that keeps us human was coupled with the human inability to maintain a rebellion's emancipating promise was informed by his own experiences as an exile from Nazi Germany. I wish world events didn't make the plays growing out of those reflections so enduringly timely.
But timely as Brecht is, he's also one of the modern theater's most original political voices. And the Classic Stage is becoming an ever more essential place for giving such works unique, handsomely staged and well acted productions.
No wonder Brecht and Classic Stage enthusiasts have been buying enough tickets to prompt a two week extension even before this production's official opening during which comic actress Lea DeLaria will be taking over for the otherwise engaged Mary Testa. A cast member, uncredited in the program, who will be on stage throughout the run, is the delightful puppet at the center of the Chalk Circle trial.
The spotlight CSC is shining on Brecht, will be picked up by two other Off-Broadway theater companies. The Foundry's terrific Good Person of Sechuwan, seen briefly earlier this season at LaMama ( our review) , is now scheduled for another run audience at the Public Theater. And the Atlantic Theater, which usually does only straight dramas, will be doing a musical revival of Brecht and Weil's big hit, Threepenny Opera with an English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein and direction by Martha Clarke.