The Caucasian Chalk Circle: Theater Review
Christopher Lloyd stars in this off-Broadway revival of Bertolt Brecht's modern classic.
To say that the Classic Stage Company’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle is suitably Brechtian is to damn it with faint praise. Director Brian Kulick’s revival dutifully conforms to the theater of alienation style, with results that are probably even more distancing than the playwright intended. Featuring endless meta-theatrical touches that too often detract from the emotionalism of the parable-like tale, the production frequently flounders despite its energetic staging and the highly committed performances by an ensemble including the estimable Christopher Lloyd.
Written during the playwright’s late period of exile in Southern California in the 1940s, the play, based on an ancient Chinese story, is set in the mythical land of Grusinia, here represented as the Soviet Union during its tumultuous fall. It thus begins with a setting dominated by a massive statute of a forbidding looking leader, which eventually topples, before transforming into a decrepit urban landscape featuring a giant Coke sign.
The simple story concerns the aftereffects of a revolution that unseats the tyrannical governor and his wife (Mary Testa), who leave their infant son behind in their hurried fleeing during the coup. The child -- represented by a life-like puppet -- is rescued by a young servant girl, Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis), who keeps him safe even as the region is torn by violent conflict. Eventually the governor’s wife returns to reclaim her child, resulting in a custody trial overseen by Azdak (Lloyd), a roguish clerk who has ironically assumed the position of judge. His Solomon-like way of settling the dispute, in which the two women play a literal tug of war with the child in a small chalk circle, spurs the play’s dramatic climax.
The production frequently makes strained efforts to engage audience members in the action, with volunteers recruited to don costumes and play minor figures in a wedding scene. Later, when called upon for a sing-along, we’re chided for our lackadaisical performance (“This was not problem for last night audience,” we’re told.) Some of the dialogue is performed in Russian, and the action is occasionally halted during mock power blackouts until one of the actors climbs a tall ladder to correct the problem.
The endlessly busy goings-on are more patience testing than illuminating, with the play’s emotional urgency too often succumbing to cheap effects. Still, the production has its stirring moments, many provided by the plaintive original musical score composed by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) to lyrics by poet W. H. Auden.
Lloyd, who also plays the role of the narrating Singer, is an actor seemingly born to play Brecht, with his fierce visage, striking physicality and gravelly voice adding to the intensity of his arresting performance. Among the other standouts in the ensemble, most of whom play multiple roles, are Davis as the deeply sympathetic Grusha; Testa as the haughty governor’s wife; Tom Riis Farrell as the scheming Fat Prince; and Alex Hurt (William’s son) as Simon, the soldier who falls in love with Grusha.
Venue: Classic Stage Company, New York (runs through June 23)
Cast: Christopher Lloyd, Elizabeth A. Davis, Mary Testa, Tom Riis Farrell, Jason Babinsky, Deb Radloff, Alex Hurt
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht
Translators: James Stern, Tania Stern
Director: Brian Kulick
Set designer: Tony Straiges
Costume designer: Anita Yavich
Lighting designer: Justin Townsend
Sound designer: Matt Kraus
Presented by the Classic Stage Company