Review: ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ at Constellation Theatre Company

With admirable nerve and imagination, Constellation Theatre Company has mounted an endlessly inventive production of a work by a playwright who dares us to enjoy him.

Bertolt Brecht wrote plays to make a point. He was not one of those writers, so fashionable nowadays, who eschew messages and proffer experiences devoid of consequences. Thus with The Caucasian Chalk Circle—just opened in a tuneful, eye-catching, and kinetic production at Source—Brecht meant for us to take home more fundamentals than fun.

Written just after World War II, the play begins with a dispute between two factions of peasants over land that Nazis recently occupied. One group wants the land to raise goats. The other wants the land to grow fruit. Emerging from all the diverting storytelling that follows is a simple maxim: The land should go to whoever can make the best use of it. Which in Brecht’s anticapitalist worldview is an argument for power to the proletariat.

Yesenia Iglesias as Grusha and Teresa Spencer as Governor’s Wife (Matthew Schleigh as Azdak in the background) in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

To bring this point to life, one of the peasant groups puts on a play adapted from an ancient Chinese folktale about a child-custody dispute between two women. To resolve their competing claims, a judge instructs them to place the child in the center of a chalk circle and tug its arms in opposite directions. Whoever can yank the child out of the circle gets to keep it. But as in the biblical story of King Solomon, who in similar circumstances proposed slicing the kid in two, the true mother yields to the other for the sake of the child—thus proving to one and all who genuinely deserves to have custody.

Matthew Schleigh as Singer in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

And thus the peasants’ play within the play “about who owns what and why.” Lest there be any doubt that we in the audience bear responsibility for comprehending what this charming fable is about to get at, there is this sobering exchange at the beginning, between an Expert from the International Development and Reconstruction Commission (an amusingly prim Teresa Spencer) and a Singer who will narrate the story (an appealingly rocker-voiced Matthew Schleigh).

Expert: You won’t preach at me, will you? I hate those plays where they preach at you.
Singer: It’s our job to entertain. Your job to draw conclusions.
Expert: Hmm … How long does it last?
Singer: About a couple of hours.
Expert: Couldn’t you make it shorter?
Singer: No.

Some two and a half hours later, a song sung by the Ensemble spells out the conclusions we were to infer:

YOU WHO’VE HEARD THE TALE
OF THE CHALK CIRCLE
REMEMBER THE WISDOM OF THE AGES:
THAT EVERYTHING BELONGS BY RIGHT
TO THOSE WHO CARE FOR IT:
CHILDREN TO THE MOTHERLY
SO THAT THE CHILDREN THRIVE.
HORSES TO GOOD HORSEMEN
SO THAT THE HORSES THRIVE
AND THE EARTH TO GOOD FARMERS
SO THAT THE EARTH MAY THRIVE.

In between that setup and that summary is a terrifically staged show with original music that more than lives up to Constellation Theatre Company’s reputation for spectacular design and production values. The hardscrabble black-and-gray set by Scenic and Lighting Designer A. J. Guban is an amazing warren of entrances and exits around concentric circular steps, with some audience members seated inside the action as if in dugouts. Director Allison Arkell Stockman adeptly keeps the buoyant cast of 14, who play 60 characters, bolting on and off apace. That is, when they’re not making stunning stage pictures (like a rope bridge across a river), or executing Choreographer Tony Thomas II’s angular dance moves, or pausing to sing beautifully listenable music by Brian Lotter and Schleigh, accompanied by a lively pit band (Ben Lurye on keyboard, Manny Arcinega on percussion, Schleigh on guitar). And Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt dresses all 60 distinct characters in a blazing kaleidoscope of colors and textures from regal to rustic, from brocade to sackcloth.

Yesenia Iglesias as Grusha and Drew Kopas as Simon in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

Though the political import of Brecht’s epic might fit tidily in a TED Talk, his intention is to reach our emotions before prompting us to reach his conclusions. To that end Act One features an involved storyline about a young woman named Grusha (a magnetic Yesenia Iglesias) who rescues and flees with a royal-born child (an adorable doll by Puppet Designer Matthew Aldwin McGee), along the way falling in love with a soldier named Simon (a dashing Drew Kopas) and encountering worrisome threats to her and the child’s safety and well-being. In Act Two—headed toward the final chalk-circle showdown between Grusha and the child’s vain and unsympathetic birth mother (Spencer again)—Brecht basically restarts the play with a secondary involved storyline, chronologically parallel to Grusha’s and somewhat less interesting, that establishes the character of Azdak, the trial judge (Schleigh again).

Audience members seated inside the set, Yesenia Iglesias, and Tamieka Chavis in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

Brecht even in his heyday was not Mr. Emotionally Relatable, but there is plenty to enjoy in the performances of an ensemble that also includes Kieth Irby, Greg Ongao, Natalie Cutcher, Amanda Forstrom, Scott Ward Abernethy, Ashley Ivey, Lisa Hodsoll, Brian Reisman, Tamieka Chavis, and Billie Krishawn. And for those seated in the dugouts, there is the head-spinning excitement of full-circle immersion in the action.

Constellation has wisely chosen a very fresh-sounding translation by Alistair Beaton, a left-wing Scottish writer whose version of the antifascist The Arsonists was recently staged at Woolly. Constellation has done a nice job of swapping in American idioms for Beaton’s Britishisms, so the language itself is no barrier, and the cast, which is subtly mic’ed, speaks it distinctly. Yet the structure of the text of The Caucasian Chalk Circle epitomizes the playwright’s pet Verfremdungseffekt—a  distancing technique intended to keep us the audience from getting so wrapped up in the narrative we stop being conscious unpackers of conclusions. So whether we find The Caucasian Chalk Circles involved storylines involving is not entirely up to either Constellation or us.

Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes, including one intermission.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle plays through May 13, 2018, at Constellation Theatre Company performing at Source Theatre – 1835 14th Street North West, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7741, or purchase them online.

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