Last week, I decided to venture off my usual path and check out the Constellation Theatre, which performs at Source in the lively 14th Street corridor.
What lured me there was the chance to see a new production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a political allegory written by Bertolt Brecht in the late 1940s and periodically staged in New York and London. (It was last produced in DC some 30 years ago.)
The story, in case you’ve forgotten, is about a young woman who risks her life to save an abandoned child; she falls in love; is abused and befriended and finally confronted by the “real” mother, who wants her property back. A trial ensues, a judge decrees, and all ends well.
My friends and I knew the play, but we did not know Constellation. When we stepped inside the theater, we entered a world that looked like a lunar landscape. Our seats were inside what felt like a foxhole, with actors above and around us.
So pervasive were the lights and sound—the lights apparently dancing to the tune of a three-piece band—that we were immediately immersed in a musical universe.
In fact, the experience was a bit like looking through a telescope at a far-off constellation. And that, it turns out, is exactly what Allison Arkel Stockman, Constellation’s founder and director of this particular show, had in mind.
Constellation Theatre, she explained, is named in honor of her father, the astronomer Peter Stockman, who was deputy director of the Hubble Space Telescope. “His love of the sky rubbed off on me, reminding me that lights can tell a story.”
Allison and A. J. Guban —Constellation’s Managing Director—both believe that lighting should play a central role in each production. Guban, who is the resident wizard in charge of and set design, uses a mix of high and low angles to create a choreography of light.
Music is equally important in this version of Brecht’s parable. And while other productions have included music, none is anywhere near as appealing as this.
This staging boasts an original score by Brian Lotter—a composer known to indie film audiences but new to the stage—and actor Matthew Schleigh, who sings and plays the guitar. (The two met when performing together in a rock band called the Tryads.)
Schleigh is both narrator and judge, commenting on the action and serving, at times, as a one-man Greek chorus. He is also part of the three-piece band, strumming along with keyboard player Ben Luyre and percussionist Manny Arciniega.
Along with the music, I was struck by the quality of the amplification of sound. Even when the actors had their backs to the audience—which was half the time, since the seats were located on both sides of the stage—every single word was audible.
This is a huge contrast to most DC theaters—including the leading commercial stages—where the acoustics are often woefully inadequate. I asked Allison how Constellation managed this.
“We hired the best sound engineer we could find,” she explained. Gordon Nimmo-Smith is Constellation’s maestro of sound, and his solution was the use of many small speakers, located all over the theater, instead of a few large ones. Plus every performer was miked.
“It’s a way of making spectacle intimate,” she added.
Both the music, which combines traditional and contemporary styles, and the translation, by Scottish satirist Alistair Beaton, are reminiscent of Brecht’s Three Penny Opera. (for which Kurt Weill wrote the music, and Marc Blitzstein wrote the blistering English adaptation.)
Earlier translations tend to be overly preachy. Beaton, who is also a novelist and screenwriter, manages to avoid that trap.
“People forget that this is satire,” Allison said. “What happens when a play is in another language is that the humor often gets lost in translation. Beaton puts it back.”
Humor is a crucial element of theater, she added, pointing out that Constellation is dedicated to the idea of “epic” drama. “That means that it should be entertaining, awe-inspiring, educational. And funny!”
“Nowadays,” she continued, “realism is so well-executed on TV and in film. There’s no need to replicate it in live drama.”
Since Caucasian Chalk Circle is about corruption and greed, I asked if it was meant to have any connection to current politics.
She laughed. “We chose it because of the election. But it does have a happy ending. It’s a message of hope and compassion. And that’s what we need, at a time like today, when fear and confusion rule.”
Caucasian Chalk Circle is also about motherhood. The play raises the question of who is the “real” mother—the vain aristocrat who abandons her child or the simple young woman who saves him—and then demonstrates the moral value of nurturing.
“That makes it a great play for Mother’s Day,” she said. I agreed. (Incidentally, Mother’s Day—May 13—is the final day of the run.)
In addition to corruption and motherhood—and words and music and lights and sound—this Caucasian Chalk Circle also has 14 talented actors playing more than 60 characters, two puppets and a human replication of a rope bridge that is stunning to behold.
You can read about all those things in John Stoltenberg’s fine review by clicking here.
Running Time: Two hours and 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.