Pipeline Theatre Company’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, under the direction of Anya Saffir, is a tour-de-force fueled by an extraordinary cast. Eric Bentley’s 1947 translation of Bertolt Brecht’s re-envisioned take of an ancient Chinese play, is befitting and speaks to the injustices prevalent in the modern world from current political struggles in the Middle East to our own political battles here in America: a ripe testament to the transcendence of language over time.
And in the midst of set and lighting designer Eric Southern’s Brechtian landscape, struggle is palpable. The stage is a tangled setting, with tattered and torn curtains, overturned furniture, scaffolding, dilapidated walls, and eerie lighting. The play begins in 1945 with the reconstruction of post-war Europe and Asia. Two Kolkoz villages meet to decide a dispute. The “Rosa Luxembourg” farm, a collective of goat-breeders, were pushed out of their land by Hitler’s army. The neighboring “Galinsk” fruit farmers have proposed irrigating the Rosa Luxembourg and turning its war-torn landscape into a plush irrigated farm that would increase fruit and vineyard production for their country ten-fold, and both villages would benefit. But stubbornness, and the fact that the land has been the goat breeders' “from all eternity,” nearly unravels a peaceful reconstruction. Once blueprints are presented, logic gives way and the reluctant elder of the goat breeders gives in. In celebration, a singer named Arkadi Tschedidse (portrayed by an enchanting Michael Piazza), performs a story that has a “bearing on the problem,” hoping to breathe inspiration into the new deal. That story is “The Chalk Circle.”
Its plot, itself a custody-battle-of-sorts, is no stranger to the everyday spectacle of stories churned out by the likes of the New York Post and in some ways, The Onion (that may be going overboard, but there’s fun in seeing the angle).
From 1945 the play travels back about 1,000 years, where a revolution overturns one corrupt government to make way for another. However caught in the middle is Grusha, a peasant woman who takes pity on the Governor’s Wife’s son, Michael, who is left behind as the bourgeois family takes flight. For Brecht, the peasants and poor are just as evil as the bourgeoisie. And this is a play about imposters, with cast members playing multiple roles—aptly displaying a wide range of talent—but the imposters are heroes and their intentions correct. Maura Hooper (Grusha) is at first believably timid, but as her journey into the darker elements of the play unfolds, real despair gives way to a commanding performance. Grusha claims to be Michael’s mother, journeying far and long to keep him safe from rebel princes who want to be sure there is no rightful heir, once the dust of revolution settles. As the revolution turns to full-fledged war, Grusha takes refuge with her brother Lavrenti for some time. Swayed though by his domineering wife who wants Grusha out, he convinces Grusha it is best to avoid suspicion of Michael’s origin, and to marry (a dying man, who it turns out is not really dying). And just as she is married, the war conveniently ends and news that the soldiers will be returning delivers a devastating blow to Grusha (her hand was promised to a soldier named Simon.)
Grusha is the Mother Courage of this play who has put her life on the line and jeopardized her heart, all to protect a child that causes her nothing but distress. And with the announcement of the war’s end, the look on Hooper’s face in reflection on all she’s been burdened by is piercing.
However, good audience, remember: Brecht doesn’t want you to identify with the characters or plot or actors; he felt it was indecent. Brecht’s actors in the Berliner Ensemble were trained to remain distant, often masked, and in his productions the V-Effect (Verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect) was evident. He wanted his audiences to think, not feel or “connect.” Well, whether this didactic school of thought is appropriate in the present, Saffir’s direction is refreshing and allows the catharsis of the play to hit home. Grusha is found out, Michael confiscated and brought before the new court. The Governor’s Wife somehow escaped the rebels and now wants her child back.
A bombastic and impressionable Gil Zabarsky plays Azdak, the Robin Hood-like judge who rules in favor of the poor, and who after presiding over the case decides the court cannot derive the true mother and that a test is in hand: with chalk, a circle is drawn on the floor and Michael is placed in the center. Zabarsky delivers a mix of practicality and demonic curiosity when his character asserts that the real mother will be able to pull the child out of the circle. Both women grab Michael’s hands and before they pull, a deep breath is warranted…
Composer Cormac Bluestone’s music is beautifully arranged with texture and layering that enhances dramatic moments and appropriately underscores the comedic spectacle of Chalk Circle, of which there is plenty. At times however, mics were not picking up voices and the singing was drowned out (likely an opening night technicality).
The show runs nearly three hours with one intermission, but doesn’t seem that long as this ensemble will certainly captivate you with characters and caricatures of a capitalistic society in the midst of revolution.