Caucasian Chalk Circle

Reviews: Time Out New York | The Village Voice | The Queens Chronicle

Time Out New York

Brecht in Long Island City | Download PDF
July 9-15, 2009

For a play about the chaos of war, the PL115 production of Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle is oddly reassuring. It’s somehow exactly what it ought to be, populated as it is by talented young Columbia grads and wearing its director’s recent apprenticeships boldly on its sleeve. And though there is still a whiff of the journeyman here, the company takes exacting care over every Kurt Weill–indebted song and joke. The show makes modest gains, but it does so with confidence and brio.

“We never forget Reagan’s or the ensemble’s thrilling potential.”

In the first half, while soldier Simon (Jeff Clarke) woos pink-faced Grusha (Rachel Jablin) in the middle of a vicious coup, nothing could be sweeter. When Grusha scoops up a baby—who has noble parents and the army hot on his diaper—the cast hops merrily across Peter Ksander’s handsomely deconstructed set. The production has such zing and visual cohesion that costumer Asta Hostetter fashions a monk’s headgear from a padded cooler and no one bats an eye. Sadly, after intermission, the humor broadens in a desperate effort to goose along Brecht’s second plot (the rise of a corrupt judge). The judge doesn’t wear pants! Ha.

Director Alice Reagan, hamstrung by the play’s lopsided structure, excels more in theory than in execution. Choreographer Beth Kurkjian’s dances aren’t up to snuff, and despite some terrific banjo tunes by Mark Valadez, narrating chanteuse Rebecca Lingafelter falls just short. But luckily, we never forget Reagan’s or the ensemble’s thrilling potential: Not even two hours of Brecht could alienate us from them.

The Village Voice

Molière’s Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe Shifted to Harlem, Brecht’s Chalk Circle Updated to Now
July 1, 2009

What’s more contemporary than a classic? It seems as if each new season brings us masterpieces propelled helplessly into the present, or at least the more recent past. Directors treat us to Oedipus as a suburban dad, Hamlet as an emo kid, Hedda surrounded by robots. Sometimes, these updates illuminate older plays, teasing out resonance and relevance; often, they serve as mere obfuscation. Last week saw the opening of two more renovated warhorses: The Classical Theatre of Harlem offered Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe, Molière’s play reset in the Harlem Renaissance, and Performance Lab 115 debuted a modern-dress version of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle.

“A brisk, compassionate version of a difficult script.”

By contrast, PL115 offers a more loyal and unpretentious version of its original—in this case, Brecht’s 1945 Caucasian Chalk Circle, written during the writer’s American exile. Though a dramaturgical note draws attention to the play’s depiction of “economic opportunism and financial greed,” this production, staged at the Chocolate Factory, seems uncertain of how it relates to the present and why it’s costumed and set here. Alice Reagan’s direction gestures toward the alienation affect, but also includes some Anne Bogart–ish choreography, a few nods to the Wooster Group, and even a bit of realism. This ought to make for a mess, but instead results in a quite likable, if occasionally clumsy, production, aided by its energetic cast. I’m not sure what Reagan means to say about Brecht’s work, and I can’t sense what drew her toward it, but she’s offered a brisk, compassionate version of a difficult script. If the play warns of the “terrible temptation to do good,” it seems as if PL115 has given in.

The Queens Chronicle

‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’ creative, crisp and compelling | Download PDF
July 2, 2009

Tickets to Performance Lab 115’s production of “Caucasian Chalk Circle” are only $15, but the show would be worth seeing at five times that price. The cast is stellar, the scenery and costumes strikingly inventive and the performance has a level of energy to which all plays should aspire.

Bertolt Brecht’s piece is written as a play within a play, and in this production the prologue establishing the frame story, happens not on stage but in the austere basement of the theater. Actors and audience members cluster together, blurring the lines between performers and spectators and drawing viewers into the action.

The frame story ends — and the show moves on stage — as a singer, accompanied by a banjo, narrates the tale of a peasant girl named Grusha, who rescues an abandoned baby after the child’s father, the governor, is beheaded and the mother flees town. Grusha reluctantly takes the baby as her own, grows to love him and turns her life upside down for him, making sacrifice after sacrifice with graceful resignation, only to be confronted by the boy’s biological mother, who eventually returns to claim her son.

The first few minutes of the show may confuse those who are unfamiliar with Brecht’s story, as the pace is dizzyingly fast, the acting stylized and the expository events chaotic. But don’t lose heart; the story unfolds with clarity — and there’s not a dull moment in the piece.

“This rendering of “Caucasian Chalk Circle” is fresh, vibrant and compelling.”

There’s also not a weak link in the cast. Rachel Jablin plays Grusha with subtlety, poise and charm. She captures the character’s emotional journey beautifully, with the giddy optimism of girlish love giving way to a willful determination to persevere after she is saddled with the burden of a child. Her patient acceptance of the brutal circumstances she faces and her unswerving willingness to make painful personal decisions for the good of her young charge make for heart-wrenching moments later in the play.

Each of the other actors plays a variety of characters, and the ensemble casting works excellently. Of particular note are Rachel Schwartz, who paints a scathing picture of the vain, whiny governor’s wife, without falling prey to corniness; and Marty Keiser, who brings an admirable level of energy — and comic relief — to the show with his portrayal of Azdak, the judge. The production’s visuals and sound are also strikingly effective. Peter Ksander’s set is reminiscent of a building under

construction, with bare studs, construction barriers and an empty elevator shaft which is used with exceptional dramatic effect. Asta Hostetter’s costumes are the unlikeliest mixture of items, almost all of which could have have come from the nearest thrift store — but they accentuate the characters’ personalities perfectly and update the story with creativity and color.

The show’s sound follows suit, with excellent singing set to an original folky score. Other audio effects, created by a host of random objects (think “Stomp”), add to the show’s intensity and accentuate the mood of individual scenes.

The theater may be small and the show’s budget smaller, but this rendering of “Caucasian Chalk Circle” is fresh, vibrant and compelling — and shouldn’t be missed.