Chalking It Up

When Bertolt Brecht fled Germany for Hollywood in the early 1940s, he was commissioned to write a play for the actress Luise Rainer. The play was The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Rainer, though a devoted admirer of Brecht’s, eventually passed on the work. “I am Brecht!,” he reportedly sneered at the two-time Oscar-winner, “and you are nothing!” Despite this early hiccup, The Caucasian Chalk Circle represents one of Brecht’s richest and most popular works. The Pipeline Theatre Company takes up the Brechtian torch in its current revival of the piece at Theater for the New City, rendering a superb production that hits all the right notes in style and stride. With spry pacing, compelling brio, and a host of laughs, director Anya Saffir leads a savvy, resourceful ensemble. In the wrong hands, Brecht can easily slip into ho-hum heavy-handedness and didacticism, a danger that never threatens this production. Without skimping on the material, Saffir surges Brecht’s two hour and forty five minute tale ahead with remarkable command.

Replete with techniques and devices, from its projected captions to its bare set, that embody the tenets of Epic Theatre (a theatrical movement that Brecht developed and made famous), Saffir embraces the Brechtian model but is not intimidated by its shadow. She allows her cast to realize their roles with heightened vigor and ingenuity, resulting in a canvas of engrossing heroes, charlatans, villains and divas. Rather than resembling mere mouthpieces for Brecht’s themes, which still come across just fine, Saffir’s ensemble injects an impulsive zest into its array of characters that makes the work all the more flavorful and, yes, flat out funny. The Caucasian Chalk Circle offers more moments for humor than is typically found in a Brecht play, and the company takes great advantage of this asset.

Set during civil war, the play concerns two disparate storylines. The first centers on the heroine Grusha, maid to the powerful Governor and his wife. When war breaks out, the Governor is deposed and beheaded while his wife flees in terror, leaving their baby son behind. Finding the child, Grusha risks her life to protect it from the merciless hands of the uprising. The first half of the play traces her journey as she seeks safety for the young boy she’s grown to love. The other storyline involves Azdak, a borderline bum who, in the fluky chaos of war, is thrust into a position as an influential judge, where his wisdom and virtue reveal themselves in many verdicts that side with the poor over the corrupt elite.

The storylines converge when the civil war ends and the Governor’s opportunistic wife returns from exile to demand her child back from Grusha. They go before the judge, Azdak, who must choose the child’s mother. To do so, he places the child within a chalk drawn circle and, not unlike the tactic used by the Biblical Solomon, asks the two women to grab the child’s arms and yank him out of the circle in a potentially calamitous tug-of-war bout.

The ensemble, working together in near perfect step, is among the finest you will encounter. It seems unnecessary, and un-Brechtian, to single out actors from such a capable collective, but there are some standouts. Maura Hooper’s Grusha and Gil Zabarsky’s Azdak exhibit a steady calm and endearing earnestness as the play’s moral agents. Jacquelyn Landgraf is hysterical as the Governor’s Wife, and Chloe Wepper, Alex Mills, John Early and Brian Maxsween are all exquisite in a series of minor but highly memorable roles. Still, it is Michael R. Piazza’s performance as the Singer/Storyteller that holds the piece together. He sings and narrates us through the performance, serving as both an entity within the play and a conduit to the audience. A play like this, with so many characters, short scenes, and split storylines, needs an anchor. Never quaint or indulgent, Piazza grounds the action wonderfully.

Many of the actors also double as musicians, playing an assortment of instruments ranging from drums and piano to trumpet and banjo. Composed by Cormac Bluestone, the music in the piece is more than just an afterthought; it is at the core of the play and is performed expertly. Katja Andreiev’s many costumes achieve a lot with little, and Eric Southern’s set and lighting designs are stark, minimal and, in keeping with the Brechtian tradition, unafraid to reveal the guts of theatrical artifice.

“Terrible is the temptation of Goodness” is one of the more striking lines in the piece. Illustrated in the struggles of Grusha and Azdak, the line reflects the play’s central thematic question: Can virtue thrive in a society so conditioned to do wrong? With levity and pathos, the Pipeline Theatre Company takes us on an absorbing ride toward the answer. For those on the prowl for a hidden gem, this production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a promising place to start.

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