Caucasian Chalk Circle, SF

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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The Caucasian Chalk Circle

 Caucasian Chalk Circle
Photo: Kevin Berne

By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Domenique Lozano
Directed and designed by John Doyle
Composition and musical direction by Nathaniel Stookey
American Conservatory Theater (ACT), San Francisco
February 18-March 14, 2010

It’s a director’s game nowadays and few directors generate as much heat, noise and controversy as John Doyle. Famed in this country for his pared-down, innovative productions of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” the award-winning British theater and opera director is no less acclaimed on the other side of the pond. Now he takes on Brecht in a new production and world premiere translation by Domenique Lozano at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and the results are nothing less than stunning.

Lights blaze, sirens blare, scenery falls down from the flies and a ragtag company of players, some banging on drums, some playing an accordion or violin (a Doyle trademark; no orchestra, just the actors accompanying themselves) is strung across the stage. There is a sense of desperate emergency and that’s before the play even begins. Doyle, who designed the production as well, immediately thrusts his audience into a landscape of chaos and decay, a country from which we will not escape until the final bows. It’s not a pretty picture by any stretch but it is fascinating. And fun. All the usual Brecht suspects are present: the futility and horror of war; the exploitation of the poor by the rich; the corruption of justice and government; the venality of most people and the goodness of a very few. It is easy to see how “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” could become a preachy exercise in polemic. But it doesn’t, thanks to Lozano’s breezy, updated translation, Doyle’s masterful direction and a versatile bunch of actors who take on many roles and perform them all wonderfully.

There has been a coup in Grusinia. The suburbs are on fire, the corrupt Governor (Jack Willis) is arrested and panic reigns in the palace where his vain, spoiled wife Natalie (Rene Augesen) tries to decide which of her dresses to take with her as she flees. She does get away with a few things but conveniently forgets her baby. And thereby hangs the tale. As everybody knows, the Governor’s baby would be quite a prize for the opposition so the chambermaid Grusche (a very good Omoze Idehenre, member of the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program) picks the child up and, not knowing what else to do, takes him with her. She journeys far, pursued by a brigade of Tank Drivers, under their vicious leader (the marvelous Anthony Fusco). Nevertheless, although hungry, weary and sick, the intrepid Grusche eludes them. She shelters for a time in the hut of her brother (a hilarious Gregory Wallace) but her pious sister-in-law (Augesen again) doesn’t approve of an unwed mother under her roof. So, although she is betrothed to a soldier (Nick Childress) away at the front, they find her a husband – a half-dead fellow who is sure to make her an instant widow. But the guy doesn’t die. A dedicated draft-dodger, he comes to vibrant and demanding life at the first news of an armistice.

Act Two is dedicated to the phenomenal rise of the village clerk Azdak (Willis again, but this time in all his sly glory) to Chief Judge. In this capacity he will eventually rule upon the case of the child, whose mother has come back to claim him (and his inheritance) by means of a King Solomon device, the chalk circle of the title. But, before that, he will take a lot of bribes, sleep with a lot of petitioners and make the audience love him and hate him at the same time. Willis has a blast, breaking the fourth wall at frequent intervals, and engaging the audience in his machinations. It’s a little hokey but, by this time, we could use a few laughs.

Although all the cast members are listed as “Ensemble,” and many of them play multiple roles – sometimes to confusing effect – a few, Idehenre, Childress and Manoel Felciano as the Singer who leads narration of the tale, don’t break character except to join in the choruses. Caroline Hewitt and Rod Knapp round out the cast. Nathaniel Stookey’s music isn’t Weill but it’s as hard and gritty as the rest of the production design and works well within the context. Sometimes the words are difficult to make out but, all in all, Brecht might not have been upset with this show.

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