By Karen Isaacs
Most American theater goers think of Threepenny Opera when they think of Bertol Brecht, unless, of course, they think of Kurt Weill who wrote the haunting music. But Brecht was a major playwright of the 20th century.
Not only did he work with Weill on Threepenny, Maghonny, Happy End and others, he was poet, a playwright — Mother Courage, Galileo, The Good Woman of Szechwan among others — a theater director and founder of the Berliner Ensemble.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a Brecht play written in the 1940s, is being given a fine production at the Yale Rep through April 11.
The play exemplifies many of Brecht’s trademarks — a broad scope that could be called epic: many scenes in different times and places, a narrator, and the use of music to enhance the story.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is set in a mythical country of Grusinia, which is located in the Caucasus region in the area of Russia, the Black and Caspian seas, and the Middle East. Today, we might place it in the areas of Georgia, Azerbajian and other nearby countries.
Grusinia is ruled by a dictatorship but as the play opens on Easter, the uncle of the Governor overthrows his nephew. As the “iron shirts” take over the city and the peasants begin to revolt, Ludovica (the wife of the deposed governor) is more concerned with her clothes than her infant son and flees without him. It is left to Grusha, a kitchen maid, whom the narrator calls “a good person” to take the baby who is being hunted by his father’s enemies.
We followed Grushna’s odyssey with the child. Though she tries to abandon him at one point and at another point convinces a husband and wife to take him, she keeps returning to save him from death multiple times. She makes an arduous journey across the countryside, meeting various people who react in often predictably selfish ways. Her brother convinces her to marry a “dying” man so that she will have more status and roof over her head — the brother’s wife is not a “good person”. She also has encounters with the iron shirts who are searching for the child to collect the substantial reward. Of course, the “dying” husband was just pretending to avoid the draft and when he learns the war is over, he returns to health. Grushna is horrified because she is in love with – and promised to — a soldier. As act one ends, the soldier has returned, the iron shirts have found the child that Grushna proclaims is hers, and the soldier leaves.
Act two begins with nary a mention of the child nor of Grushna. Instead we are propelled into the story of Azdak, another “good person” who ends up as a judge. While he takes money from the wealthy and privileged, he invariably rules for the poor and powerless people. When Ludovica, the governor’s wife returns and tries to claim the child — and the money that goes with it — it is he who will hear the case.
He uses what he calls the chalk circle to decide which is the “true” mother — Ludovica or Grushna. In a ending that has references to Solomon, it is Grushna who is declared the “true” mother.
Throughout the play, a narrator propels the action along, sets the scene and comments on the action and the politics. In keeping with Brecht’s political philosophy — he was a Communist who spent the last years of his life in East Germany — the comments are about the greed of the well-to-do and powerful, the abuse of power, and the poor treatment of the average person.
The Yale Rep production features a talented cast, many of whom play multiple roles. Special notice should be given to Julyana Soelistyo who plays Grushna’s mother-in-law among others. Shaunette Renée Wilson gives Grushna the simple goodness that the role requires. Others tell her she is “not very bright” but she projects the radiance of goodness and honesty that the role embodies. Also excellent is Steven Skybell who serves both as the narrator/commentator and as the other “good person,” Azdak.
Liz Diamond has directed this production with a sure hand aided by outstanding lighting by Steven Strawbridge, scenic design by Chika Shimizu, and costumes by Soule Golden. In addition, David Lang has composed the songs that are part of the play.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is typical of much of Brecht: it can be polemical and preachy; at times it can seem too long and confusing.
Yet, overall this is a play with universal appeal — in fact, it is roughly based on a Chinese story and also can be seen as a reflection of Brecht’s own multi-country journey escaping the Nazis. From 1933 when he left Germany it was not until 1942 that he landed in Los Angeles and the US where he stayed until 1947. During the interim he lived in Prague, Vienna, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Russia with briefer visits to Paris, New York and Manila.
In today’s news, we hear daily about the refugees throughout the world escaping from war, oppression and poverty and trying to survive with little.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle will engage your mind and also your heart.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle presented by Yale Rep at the University Theater, 222 York Street, New Haven. For tickets visit http://www.yalerep.org or call 203-432-1234.
This review appears courtesy of Shore Publications, http://www.zip06.com.