Theater review: 'The Caucasian Chalk Circle' at ACT
From San Francisco
The happiest surprise of British director John Doyle’s dashing, apocalyptic staging of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” which opened Wednesday at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, is the depth of feeling that courses through the production.
Brecht and emotion are often said to be sworn enemies. His epic theater was designed in opposition to the sappiness of conventional drama. Audiences are meant to think, not weep. But if Brecht were as boringly theoretical as he’s sometimes made out to be in university seminars, his work would have long faded from the repertory.
A consummate man of theater, he employed all the tools of his trade (story, character and, yes, even heart) to provoke, challenge and entertain. And Doyle, working in the stylishly resourceful way in which he has re-imagined how Stephen Sondheim musicals can be staged, brings enormous inventiveness to an undertaking that few regional theaters in America would have the intellectual passion, never mind the guts, to pull off.
It helps that ACT has a resident company that’s comfortable in a variety of world repertory styles. The cohesion of the nine-person ensemble — which features in the key narrating role of the Singer Manoel Felciano, who received a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Tobias in Doyle's chamber production of "Sweeney Todd"— is as impressive as the visual palette.
Doyle, who designed as well directed, creates a junk-strewn universe with hanging drop cloths abstractly flecked with paint, a menacing rig of lights and a prison fence. The spare effect, sharpened by Jane Cox's lighting, is at once distinctly his own and readily applicable to the play's war-torn reality.
Written during Brecht’s period of exile in Southern California in the 1940s, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” tells the tale of a young servant girl named Grusche who rescues a baby that has been abandoned by the governor and his vain wife after a military coup in a small town in the princedom of Grusinia. Risking her life to protect the helpless infant (represented here as a pillow), Grusche and the child embark on a journey of mutual survival that ultimately raises the question of who has parental rights over the boy, the woman who gave him life or the one who sustained it.
Brecht’s salty humanism, alive with contradiction and color, is ultimately more important to his playwriting than his Marxism. The work, unfolding in a series of springy parable-like scenes, escalates into vaudeville once Azdak, a cross between Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Groucho Marx, enters the picture as the judge in the case of the baby that the governor’s wife suddenly wants back.
Less professionally qualified yet no more corrupt than his predecessors, Azdak lets his horse sense guide him on the bench. It’s not clear to him why Grusche, a poor girl who has nothing but love to give, would want to accept the responsibility of the child. She has almost lost Simon, a smitten soldier who came back from battle shocked to find her with a kid.
But Azdak, who sees more than the bribes he's always willing to accept, devises a judicial method that harks back to the Old Testament’s Judgment of Solomon as well Chinese folklore — the two mothers will engage in a tug of war with the baby, the winner getting the right to keep whatever is left of the poor darling. The outcome, however, will reaffirm the idea that “terrible is the temptation to be good,” a piece of ironic Brechtian wisdom that teaches the value of unsaintly citizens such as ourselves seizing the opportunity to tip the scales toward justice whenever the possibility presents itself.
The production employs a new translation by Domenique Lozano, an associate artist at ACT, that bubbles over with American vernacular and curse words. The prologue, often cut in performance, is missing here, which makes it a bit difficult in the opening moments to find one’s bearings. There’s a fuzzy quality to the multilayered tale-within-a-tale setup of Grusche’s narrative, but this confusion clears up about 10 minutes into the show.
Just as he did in his Broadway productions of “Sweeney Todd” (seen at ACT as well as the Ahmanson) and "Company,” Doyle enlists the actors to play musical instruments. This practice seems more natural for Brecht than for Sondheim. To begin with, Brecht makes it difficult for performers to plant themselves in realistic soil, asking them to serve as both storytellers and characters in the story.
But equally important, the composition by musical director Nathaniel Stookey is seamlessly integrated into the overall stage vision. Stookey’s “Junkestra” clearly influenced the approach (buckets and pipes are used along with conventional instruments), yet the blend of sensibilities has a novel chemistry. I can’t recall when I’ve found a music drama this eclectically satisfying.
The cast is chockablock with pungent presences, from René Augesen’s spoiled governor’s wife to Jack Willis’ carnival con man Azdak. Omozé Idehenre grounds Grusche’s struggle in human truth, yet not to the point where she loses the theatrical flexibility her role demands. Instead, she wears her character like a mask — lifelike yet readily removable.
At a time when nonprofit theaters have become averse to risk-taking, ACT should be congratulated for this daring production. There are a few lulls in momentum and Brechtian purists may take issue with the loss of some metatheatrical complexity. But it’s an impressive feat of stagecraft, less starry than Doyle’s L.A. Opera production of Brecht and Kurt Weill’s "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" yet somehow more poised.
But I can’t get over how much this “Caucasian Chalk Circle” moved me. Perhaps Brecht’s message of finding hope in humanity despite our infinite capacity to subvert ourselves has a special political resonance right now.
“The change we could believe in didn’t come,” Azdak pointedly remarks. Yet Brecht reminds us that the ball is still in our court.
-- Charles McNulty
Follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty
Photos: Top: René Augesen, from left, Nick Childress and Omozé Idehenre. Bottom: Manoel Felciano, center, and Jack Willis, right. Credit: Kevin Berne.