Monday, March 7, 2011

Review: Caucasian Chalk Circle

March 5-19
Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm
Sundays at 3pm
Saturday March 19th at 2pm & 8pm
photo: ahron foster

Brecht is my hero. Although I find him very difficult to pull off, I think the epic scope of his best works can be put alongside William Shakespeare any day. And I'm gratified that Pipeline Theatre has put on a thoroughly ambitious production -- a production with serious balls.

Caucasian Chalk Circle is one of Brecht's most broadly-scoped works. The vast majority is a play-within-a-play; the story is a folk song being performed upon the evening of the resolution of a communist dispute in Russia, where one clan has ceded their precious home to another clan who have incredible futurist plans for the valley -- a seemingly straightforward Communist morality tale about giving up the old ways for the new advances heralded by the people.

The ballad itself tells the story of Grusha Vashnadze (Maura Hooper), a young maid in the court of Governor Georgi Abashvili (Alex Mills) and his wife (Jacquelyn Landgraf). When Governor Georgi Abashvili is killed by the Fat Prince (Matthew Hanson) and a coup begins, everything descends into chaos -- during which, the Governor's Wife forgets her child, the heir to her estate. Grusha takes the child, and flees the city, pursued by the military, nearly dying in the process of getting the child to safety. She is engaged to Simon Shashava (Ronald Peet), but in the process of trying to get a home for her child, winds up married to an invalid days away from death. But she can't stay in hiding with the baby for long...

Theater for the New City affords a massive space for the production, and they stretch to fill the space. The set by Eric Southern and the original music by composer Cormac Bluestone (played by a very capable live band that includes some of the actors) creates a big playing space for the actors to fill with this huge performance.

Sometimes, some of the cast struggle to fill that vast container; usually, however, the performance is seamless -- it affords the most dynamic actors room to be performative and wild without seeming out-of-place. This is particularly true of the incidental parts such as Alex Mills as the Invalid, or John Early and Brian Maxsween as a constantly recurring comic duo who are a joy to see onstage together.

What makes the production a success, however, is not the broad strokes of the ambitious and epic design -- although the challenge that the three hour time-span, important and known work, and large design provides is quite a boost -- but it's a genuine adherence to the humanity of the characters involved.

Now, that might sound like an insult when talking about a piece of Brecht. After all, the great man supposedly spurned 'emotion' in favor of 'intellect'.

But late in Brecht's life, he recanted on the so-called "Epic" theater for which he is known in favor of a "Dialectic" theater that he said would unite the "Epic" and "Aristotelian" elements of theater in a stronger unity. Unfortunately, that's just about when he died, so what exactly the "dialectic" theater was supposed to be is left to people like me to speculate about wildly.

Yet, if you look at Brecht's existing works (like Caucasian Chalk Circle, for instance) the bridging of those two worlds -- one rejecting empathy in favor of intellect and artifice, the other embracing emotion and a more visceral engagement -- is possible. And this is where Pipeline's production succeeds, particularly in two strong moments that are carried on the back of their excellent actors.

The first is a key scene where Simon Shashava has returned from the war, only to find out that Grusha is already married. During the scene, they are separated by a river; rather than attempting to explain to each other what has passed, Brecht chooses to have the Singer (Michael R. Piazza) sing the song of what they wanted to say but couldn't, directly to the audience.

In Maura and Ronald's performance, there's no denying how incredibly moving the scene is. Even with the theatrical gimmick of songs directed at the audience, it's still an empathetic moment. At the same time, the clear global dimension of the song struck me with crystal clarity: it's not just about a soldier and his betrothed, it's a song between those who saw the horrors of war and cannot understand civilian life, and those who stayed behind who cannot explain the travails of being alone at home. Brecht can't resist the visual pun -- an actual gulf between them, rather than just the metaphorical one -- and somehow that brings together the universal and the personal in one moment.

The other moment that the play highlights, particularly through Cormac Bluestone's score, is the insanity that is Azdak (Gil Zabarsky). Azdak is an intelligent rascal, a rogue with a sense of humor and a lightning fast wit, who in the chaos surrounding the coup manages to get himself appointed city judge. During the vacuum of power and chaos, Azdak creates his own rules, but rather than you'd expect, he uses corruption, bribery, and a loose interpretation of the law to pass an imperfect, ad hoc, drunk justice to the people. It isn't the justice we're used to cheering -- it is every bit as fallible and capricious as corrupt and greedy justice -- and yet he is undeniably a true saint.

Azdak is compelling because it's impossible to separate his good qualities from his bad qualities; watching Gil Zabarsky navigate that from moment to moment is a real joy.

Sometimes the play is too big for its own britches; the beginning, for instance, could use some relaxing, as it is full of poignant pauses and dramatic weight far beyond its importance to the plot. But it's much more exhilarating to watch a company aim high and succeed as much as they do. For $15, where else are you going to get a faithful, intelligent, and ballsy performance of Caucasian Chalk Circle?

(Disclaimer: The FCC requires me to disclose that my ticket was provided for free. As usual, however, I don't have to say anything about how I would let just about anyone on this cast bear my children. Such is life.)

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