The Caucasian Chalk Circle -- Yale Rep

David Rosenberg

Those who’ve never particularly liked the plays of Bertolt Brecht, nor understood that author’s appeal, will not have their minds changed by director Liz Diamond’s Yale Rep production of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” Idiomatically translated from German by James and Tania Stern, it’s poorly acted, tone deaf and numbingly jejune.

As a political writer (an avowed Marxist, he was hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee after escaping Nazi Germany to live in the U.S.), Brecht castigates overweening power in all its forms: political, judicial, medical, military. The “Chalk Circle” world is one of endless war, civil strife and financial inequality -- themes obviously relevant today and reinforced by anachronisms like cell phones and tablets.

Impoverished and noble peasant Grusha becomes a courageous and self-sacrificing woman who, finding the abandoned infant of fleeing aristocrats, protects and nurtures the child for years. Pursued by soldiers, she willingly gives up the fiance she loves, marries for security, pleads for help from strangers and relatives and, finally, fights for the child in a Solomonic conundrum.

Told in a series of short scenes, the parable is formal yet heartfelt. Brecht’s theory was theater should alienate audiences, forcing them to distance themselves from characters in order to think rather than feel about what they were seeing. The result was ambivalent -- audiences could not help but empathize. Brecht strove for “epic” theater, a heightening of reality that made his vivid characters into types. Thus Grusha is both herself and a symbol of survival in the face of tyranny.

Diamond fails to imbue the evening with any sense of magic, despite evocative lyrics by W. H. Auden and new, seductive music by David Lang. (Typically in Brecht, songs comment on the action.) Against fragmented sets and blood-red lighting, Diamond, a decent director, is so saddled with inadequate characterizations that she rarely achieves the epic theatricality that the piece demands.

Some set pieces, like Grusha’s crossing a river via a rickety bridge, are effective. When we get to the final court scene, and the at-last moment promised by the play’s title, the contest of wills is marred by having the judge come off as part Mickey Rooney, part Hugh Herbert. (Actually, the final scenes are relieved by minor characters, especially a bit with Anne Katherine Hagg as a well-stacked voluptuary.)

It would be charitable to label the actors as adhering to Brecht’s theories on uncomplicated acting. But the flatness of the performances indicates otherwise: the actors don’t appear objective and analytical out of conviction; rather, they hardly project any conviction at all.

Yet Shunette Renee Wilson’s Grusha glows from within. Her investment in whatever aspect of Grusha she’s playing -- her motherly devotion, her determination, her sincerity -- fills the theater with warmth. Similarly, Steven Skybell, doubling as The Singer and Judge Azdak, is earnest, knowing when to pull back, when to let lyrics and dialogue work for him. In several roles, Julyana Soelistyo is specific and forceful.

Casting African-American actors as Grusha and her fiancĂ© Simon lends a new meaning to the title and the play. Although “Caucasian” refers to the Caucasus, the play’s setting, it could also refer to the non-Caucasian couple themselves. That would put them on a racial collision course where the sins of bribery and prejudice are balanced by honesty and loyalty.

“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” is one of Brecht’s signature plays. But a theatergoer’s time might be better spent brewing a cup of tea and listening to “The Threepenny Opera.”

 

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