Theater Review: ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’

A Brechtian folk tale
June 5, 2013 Updated: June 5, 2013

NEW YORK—Playwright Bertolt Brecht, who sought to assure audiences that they were at a theatrical event and not experiencing reality, is well served by director Brian Kulick in the current Classic Stage Company production of Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” translated by James and Tania Stern.

Set designer Tony Straiges is complicit in the plan. His design features raw brick walls on which rest posters and graffiti signaling the presence of some totalitarian regime, more particularly implying the fall of the Soviet Union, with a statue presumably of Lenin soon crashing down with a thud.

Entering this not very welcoming environment is a company of Russian actors, at first complaining, in Russian, before settling down to do their jobs. Heading this motley crew is Christopher Lloyd, who, with his craggy looks and rough-hewn attitude, seems ideal for playing Brecht. Early on Lloyd plays the narrating Singer, with original music supplied by Duncan Sheik (“Spring Awakening”) to lyrics by W.H. Auden. 

The story tells of a tyrannical Governor—never seen, because he is soon to lose his head—and his Wife (the indomitable Mary Testa, multicast, as are several in the show), who must flee the imminent coup. In her confusion and selfishness, she is more concerned with what gowns she should pack than with her child and inadvertently leaves her son behind.

This unfortunate event is to make up the bulk of the story. The young boy is taken in hand by the servant girl, Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis, noted for her recent performance in the musical “Once”), and the two, Grusha and the child (indicated by a life-sized puppet), flee together. 

Grusha desperately wants to be reunited with her lover, Simon (Alex Hurt). But circumstances hinder this desire, and she ends up unhappily married to a presumably dying man, who has the annoying habit of remaining alive.

Ultimately, we get to the crux of the story: The Governor’s Wife meets up with Grusha and the child. The Wife insists she be reunited with her son; Grusha, who has endured many hardships in her travels with the boy and has come to love him dearly, fiercely disagrees. 

A former clerk of the town, the gruff Azdak (again Christopher Lloyd), becomes the judge whose job it is to make this burdensome decision. Thus, the chalk circle of the title. Placed on either side of such a circle, whichever of the women can draw the boy to her is the deserving mother. 

Though not a formally trained or properly appointed judge, Azdak has his own sense of what is right. And, in the opinion of many, his choice is the right one. 

The casting of the show might be called spotty. Aside from seasoned veterans like Lloyd and Testa, the rest of the cast is too light to properly convey a Brechtian quality. 

As Grusha, Elizabeth A. Davis projects a sincere, caring quality, but in my opinion, in no way conveys the quality of a Russian peasant servant girl. 

In multiple roles, Tom Riis Farrell has some nice moments. Others in the cast are Deb Radloff and Jason Babinsky.

Brecht is difficult to produce, but in spite of drawbacks, Mr. Kulick’s production succeeds mightily. In his 10th year as Artistic Director of CSC, Kulick and this production of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” well serve CSC’s goal of “re-imagining the classical repertory for contemporary audiences.”

“The Caucasian Chalk Circle”
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111 or visit www.classicstage.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Closes: June 23

Diana Barth writes and publishes New Millennium, an arts publication. For information: www.diabarth@juno.com.

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