11. THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE
Full disclosure: I acted in a college production of Bertolt Brecht’s THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE in 1961, with Herb Edelman (he later played Bea Arthur’s husband on MAUDE) as Azdak, and with Rickey Brodsky (Wolf) as Grusha. My own role was the “adjutant,” a minor role (but I had an interesting makeup designed by John Kelly, who may even be reading this). In 1964, I directed the play at the University of Hawaii as my MFA directing project. Having just come back from seven months in Japan, where I’d gone on an East-West Center Fellowship to study kabuki acting, I used many elements influenced by kabuki costuming, makeup, and movement. It was an early example of what later came to be called “fusion theatre,” where Eastern and Western staging techniques intermingle. Subsequently, I saw several productions staged by others, including a lugubrious one at Lincoln Center during the Herbert Blau-Jules Irving regime, and a brilliant one by Andrei Serban at La Mama.
I had the pleasure of taking Rickey as my guest to the current revival at the Classic Stage Company, and, while we had no time to talk about it afterward, I believe she enjoyed it, even though she’s been away from the play since she acted in it over 50 years ago. I told her during the intermission I wasn’t having quite as good a time, but I never had the chance to say why. CCC is one of Brecht’s two “parable plays,” as Eric Bentley calls them in his published translations, plays that, for all their multiple and even digressive threads, have a fundamental thematic core intended to teach a lesson. In the case of CCC, inspired by an ancient Chinese play, it has to do with the rights of ownership; as Bentley’s translation puts it at the end: "But you, you who have listened to the Story of the Chalk Circle, Take note what men of old concluded: That what there is shall go to those who are good for it, Thus: the children to the motherly, that they prosper, The carts to good drivers, that they are well driven And the valley to the waterers, that it bring forth fruit.”
CCC creates a world right after a revolution in Georgia, in the Caucasus (thus “Caucasian”), in some imaginary premodern world, where the governor’s pampered and arrogant wife (a fine Mary Testa) is so preoccupied with saving her personal luxuries that she runs off during the chaos, leaving behind her infant child. Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis), a peasant kitchen maid, sees the abandoned child and, having no other choice, saves its life by taking it with her into the mountains. Naturally, she nurtures and loves the child and, in the interest of giving him a suitable upbringing, endures a number of dire situations. In the topsy-turvy post-revolutionary landscape, people rise and fall with startling ease, and a scabrous lowlife named Azdak (Christopher Lloyd) is made a powerful judge, a development that gives Brecht numerous opportunities to make fun of the difference between legal justice and that administered by the craftily ironic yet humanistic peasant mind. In the climactic scene, the child’s mother, seeking to regain her child for selfish reasons having no bearing on mother love, brings suit in Azdak’s court. Unable to determine whether the biological but self-centered mother or the one that found the child by accident and raised it with the deepest love should have custody, Azdak comes up with a Solomonic scheme: he draws a chalk circle and has the mothers each take a hand of the child and pull, she who pulls the child to her side presumably being the winner. Grusha, however, cannot bear to harm the child by pulling it to her, and it seems that the governor's wife will regain her boy; in Azdak’s view, however, the peasant girl’s caring behavior reveals her to be the true mother, and she is the one who gets to keep the child.
All productions of this play of which I’m aware have used Brecht’s fantastical historical world to create memorably colorful theatrical effects of costuming and stage conventions. This production, however, goes for a more barebones look, placing the action in what appears to be the Soviet Union just after the fall of communism in the recent past. The surprisingly unpretentious costumes by Anita Yavich are, for the most part, contemporary peasant and military. The resultant look is banal. The Ironshirts, for example, so imaginatively dressed in most productions and often even wearing masks, are here shown in standard Russian army long coats and fur hats. Boring! The setting, by Tony Straiges, is an essentially bare space surrounded by the audience on three sides, with chairs, brass headboards, and other familiar detritus hanging from overhead, and with the rear wall covered with huge Soviet political posters. A statue of Lenin falls early on, Saddam Hussein-style, and remains there throughout.
Most notably, the cast is limited to a small ensemble with most actors playing multiple roles, making only minor costume changes from character to character. The director’s conceit seems to be that this is a traveling company of actors, an idea fostered by their entering carrying beat-up luggage that becomes the essential replacement for scenic properties. Lining the suitcases up creates a river, lying in a trunk creates a bathtub (another tub scene, for God’s sake!), and luggage also becomes chairs. For some reason, the first appearance of this luggage-toting ensemble is a brief prologue spoken entirely in Russian or Georgian; the actors have fun showing off their skill at having mastered the dialogue in this difficult foreign tongue, but the point escaped me.
As is common, the prologue and epilogue Brecht prepared showing a group of peasants arguing over water rights, is omitted, but James and Tania Stern’s new translation also cuts and trims much else in the play. Many minor characters are gone, including the two comic lawyers that appear in the final scene, here conflated into a single, well-dressed attorney, and one completely lacking the playwright’s grotesquerie. The little boy is replaced by a puppet, and it manages at times to have a touching quality, but the human dilemma represented by two women struggling with a child of flesh and blood is dissipated by using something made of wood and cloth. When additional bodies are needed for a wedding scene, audience volunteers are called for. (Audience participation is also elicited for an interpolated song that is not in the original and serves little purpose as the audience sings along with notable discomfort.) Brecht’s Singer (Story Teller in Bentley’s version) is also diminished; Christopher Lloyd speaks some of his lines, but in a way that muddies what the character’s purpose is. Still, Lloyd’s is the only performance that rises above the ordinary. In keeping with director Brian Kulick’s conception, Lloyd plays both the Singer and Azdak.
Lloyd is, of course, noted for his oddball, eccentric characters, and he does not disappoint in this regard. As the Singer, he stands around during act one in a dark leather coat, like some sort of official, with a stupid-looking wig of straight white hair hanging to his shoulders. When he becomes Azdak, he pulls off the wig to reveal a shaved pate, which, with his craggy face, and Obama ears, somehow makes him look like a cross between Abe Vigoda and Boris Karloff. His voice is raspy and doesn’t have much volume, so some of his words are garbled, and he sometimes seems to be grasping for lines, but his actorish intelligence and colorful imagination do much to create a vividly clever scoundrel who makes the most of the opportunities thrust upon him. Smith’s Grusha is slender and elegant and looks anything like the peasant girl she is supposed to be; Rickey’s Grusha, pictures of which I have on my Facebook page for those interested in seeing them, was more full-bodied and true to Brecht’s wishes.
Music plays a crucial part in CCC; it seems that directors are never satisfied with existing scores and are always seeking new ones, so the fine music available from previous productions has been ignored in favor of Duncan Sheik’s occasionally pleasant but mostly dull and uninspired, although well sung, score. (The lyrics are translated W.H. Auden, who gets a credit saying they are "by" him; for some reason, he gets no bio.) Of course, this may be because I can still recall the Mark Bucci music we used in both productions with which I was involved. A far more distinctive new score for a Brecht classic was used for last season’s THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN, just as Lear DeBessonet’s brilliant staging of that revival makes this CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE seem beyond the pale.