ACT Play Erases Brecht's Original Intent

Photo: Chalk bored. John Doyle's vision of 'The Caucasian Chalk Circle' may leave audiences discontented with more questions than answers.
Kevin Berne/Courtesy
Chalk bored. John Doyle's vision of 'The Caucasian Chalk Circle' may leave audiences discontented with more questions than answers.

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Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" is a work so bizarre that, conceivably, not one of its innumerable theatrical reincarnations will look the same. On the ACT's cavernous stage, director and designer John Doyle's sparse production emphasized the humorously bleak.

Set in Georgia (the country, not the Southern state), the story begins in the midst of a vague, violent uprising which renders the ensemble cast homeless, desperate and pissed about their sad state. The opening image-peasants greedily collecting scraps of paper that clutter the stage-seems like a statement about the futility of the poor to thrive and the futility of money to satisfy.

Of Doyle's many strange set choices, most prominent is his inclusion of an enormous chain link fence, which periodically descends from the ceiling. In an early scene, the fence separates would-be lovers Grusche (Omoze Idehenre) and Simon (Nick Childress). Simon, a soldier, must stay and protect the city, while Grusche flees the smoking streets for the refuge of her brother's mountain home. On her way out the door, Grusche, a servant to the recently executed Governor and his idiotic wife, stumbles upon their abandoned child, heir to the political throne.

Grusche's trek through the mountains with baby in tow gives a clear indication as to what Brecht suggests isn't futile: compassion and perseverance. Grusche is the only character in the play with any depth or motivation beyond her own survival. She encounters a host of other refugees, each of whom displays an exaggerated personality and an eccentric manner of speaking. With the apocalypse looming, it's no time for moderation.

The loud crashes and screaming sirens that punctaute the production every few minutes shock initially but bore eventually, thanks to their repetition. The same can be said of the fence motif and Nathaniel Stookey's bland original score.

Brecht divides his play into two distinct tales. In the second part, the power vacuum created by the civil unrest results in the appointment of apolitical Azdak (Jack Willis) as judge. Willis's Azdak is downright disgusting. He takes bribes and coaxes women on trial into showing off their bodies to his drooling satisfaction. The audience giggled virtually nonstop during Azdak's extended act, which has the feel of a sloppy stand-up set and really lacks cleverness. Most of his punch lines are built on sexual puns or unnecessary profanity, things which can be funny only when used sparingly. Willis's portrayal seemed, simply, too indulgent.

Eventually the two story lines unite, as Azdac must resolve the dispute between Grusche and the Governor's wife over motherhood of the baby. The face-off between earnest Grusche and cynical, sarcastic Azdac creates a delightfully surreal moment, for they are two characters seeming to belong in completely different worlds.

When it comes down to it, the viewing experience is not particularly enjoyable. The aesthetic is repetitively abrasive, from the bit characters' insistence on shrill Southern-sounding accents to the violent collapse of the stage lights to the proliferation of useless profanity. The production seemed to take the fact that the original script is written by Brecht, an undisputed genius, as a license for unrelenting shallowness and indulgence. But all of this distracts from the story, losing sight of the humanity at the heart of Brecht's strange tale.

Nick Moore is the lead theater critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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