March 17, 2010

The Caucasian Chalk Circle – test of a mother’s love!

Brecht wrote drama that typified street theater, with many intersecting stories, and relied on an audience that viewed the play without the benefit of a fourth wall. Born in Bavaria at the turn of the century, he was forced to flee Germany in 1933 and settled in California. During the war years he wrote some of his most influential plays including The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944) , while also trying to get work in the movie industry. An avowed Marxist, he was brought before the House Un-American activities committee in 1947 and and left to go to East Germany where he ran the state financed theater company until his death in 1956.

The Circle of Chalk by Li Xingdao is a Yuan dynasty (1259-1368) Chinese classical verse play, in four acts. It talks of a judgement to decide who is the rightful mother of a child. Solomon's judgment precedes it. Many adaptations have followed, with the most famous one by Brecht set in Georgia at the time of a revolt.

The adaptation by Domenique Lozano is similarly set, and deliciously blended with music under the directorship of John Doyle. Doyle last directed Sweeney Todd for ACT and in the Chalk Circle many familiar elements from that play can be seen. The characters play many roles, use conventional and unconventional instruments to play music and tell the story in verse, song and dialog!

The essential conflict between nature and nurture is made more urgent in the Brecht play as the mother (played by a radiant Renee Augeson) could care less for the child. The reluctant foster mother Grushe (played wonderfully by Omoze Idehenry) slowly grows to love the child and makes many sacrifices to save it. Finally the revolution is at an end and the mother can only get her riches back if she has the heir with her, and thus is the Chalk Circle invoked by the bawdy though fair judge (play by Jack Willis in a fine fettle) and the decision made!

Brecht's play is pertinent and relevant, as right and wrong can never be out of context with the times. The story is made up of set pieces, that tenuously connect to make a whole. The innocence of Grushe and her inherent compassionate nature leads her to a lot of trouble as she inadvertently picks up the royal baby and then ends up destroying her own chance at happiness to keep the baby alive. Thus is naivete rewarded in real life, with trouble! But then a corrupt judge delivers happiness back to Grushe telling us that being good will get a just reward in the end.

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