Once again the Classic Stage Company produced a play by Bertolt Brecht. Last season the company presented Galileo starring F. Murray Abraham in an unusual translation by Brecht and the fine British actor Charles Laughton, now deceased. Abraham portrayed Galileo to sold out-crowds. He and the production were superlative. The current version of The Caucasian Chalk Circle stars, as The Singer and Azdak, Christopher Lloyd, the prolific theater actor who is still most noted for his role as “Doc” Brown in the Back to the Future trilogy and Uncle Fester in the Addams Family films.
The director Brian Kulick (who also helmed Galileo last season) has chosen to set Brecht’s play in the Soviet Union, right about the time of the fall of Communism and the partitioning of its satellite regions into their present independent states. The production’s ironic description of the time and place suggests the metaphors which choppily thread through the play and could have been developed with much greater import to make the conception more powerful: “Ancient Grusinia but also perhaps the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Hammer and Sickle were replaced by the Coca-Cola bottle.”
Because the setting is specific to this time period, the play’s universality, its satire of politics, government corruption and injustice, is unfortunately mitigated. The themes are convoluted and confused. The play’s significance related to our time, when global corporations and shadow global elites deliver a fascist repression of their own, is rendered faint indeed. With a bit more innovation, and connected theatricality of spectacle and costume, the tie-ins symbolized by the Coke bottle (meretricious mercantilism) supplanting the noble beginning of philosophical Marxism (devolving into corrupt, repressive Communism) would have been stupendous. But the conception is to a great extent washed out. Gimmicks (an interruptive blackout, ad hoc audience participation at a makeshift wedding, and the gloss of comedic Russian and Russian-accented English spoken to frame the fable) distract from the interesting conception. The lackluster effects sink the production’s impact and Brecht’s powerful theme that love and human kindness will and should overthrow political class systems whatever their stripe.
The play begins with a Stalinesque/Leninesque statue being toppled by citizens as the current governor and his wife (Mary Testa) flee the violent tumult and retaliation for his repressive rule. It is regime change. The question Brecht poses: Which devils will now come to rule? Testa, true to her comedic talent, lessens the sting of the wife’s cruelty and arrogance as she picks the dresses she will take – but in the chaos leaves her infant son behind.
The child (for expediency and symbolism, perhaps) is represented by a life-like puppet. The fate of the child is debated by a young servant girl who finds him. Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis in a poignant though uneven performance) deliberates whether to save him. But in a typical Brechtian character tension, her humanity and the lower/middle class tenets of the Golden Rule prompt her to sacrifice her own wellbeing for the child whom she preserves. The main action of the play is the preservation of this puppet-child as she confronts danger and trials to get to her brother’s house for asylum, all the while keeping the child’s identity hidden.
The circumstances achieve a quieter resolution with strange moments of accidental kindness, and power reversal. Azdak (a hapless, loutish peasant portrayed forcefully and playfully by Christopher Lloyd) saves the disguised governor who has become his loutish, peasant equal. Through a series of inane ironies that only political revolutions can foment, Azdak turns himself in for saving the governor, but because the current political crazies have hanged all the former judges, he is in the right place at the right time to be selected as a new judge to decide matters of the law. Why not?
The justice Azdak metes out is even nuttier (Lloyd shines at these moments), probably, then the decisions the former bribed, corrupt judges handed out, with one random exception. In appears that the true Just Judge (fortune, fate, God) exerts its will through this wild, roguish Azdak. The governor’s wife has returned to reclaim her child from Grusha. Azdak must make the final decision: Who is the appropriate mother? Is it the overweening, materialist, elite, selfish biological mother or the deeply human, loving peasant who exhibits the nobility, kindness and self-sacrificial traits that exemplify the finest qualities of the human spirit that we (the little people) aspire to? In a fit of Solomonic wisdom uncharacteristic of Azdak, this lout has a chalk circle drawn. Whoever is able to take the child out of the circle is the mother. This sets the competition as two women pull each arm of the child as if to tear him in half to prove “ownership.” And you know what happens.
In this translation by James and Tania Tern, with original music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by the poet W. H. Auden, the production has rare, clarified moments and muddied, miry ones. Coherence throughout is chopped. However, Lloyd should not be missed, and Elizabeth A. Davis manages to hew out a Grusha with whom we want to identify and who vindicates our belief in ethical intention and fine human instinct. And yes, she is rewarded for this when her love interest (Alex Hurt) reaches out to her, despite the complications. (She married a dyingman under false pretenses – his being that he was escaping the draft – then is stuck with him – but not for long.)
Article first published as Theater Review (NYC): ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ by Bertolt Brecht on Blogcritics.