“Chalk Circle” Timelessly Timely — And Fun?

Carol Rosegg PhotoThe Yale Repertory Theatre’s gorgeous revival of Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 play The Caucasian Chalk Circle, directed by Liz Diamond, finds the fun in what could be an off-putting work.

Brecht famously derided the idea of empathy in theater, preferring drama that posed questions and made audiences think rather than feel. To that end, he deployed elements that, back in the 1930s and 1940s, tended to distance viewers from having a “real experience”: song, dance, projections, narration, fake-looking sets, and commentary. Since all of that is standard fare in theater in our time, theatergoers might not notice anything particularly confrontational about such devices. Still, Brecht’s “epic theater” aims to instruct while it entertains, and a production that fails to do so, to some extent, might be said to fail Brecht.

In 2015, The Caucasian Chalk Circle puts in a good word for democracy and the underclass. The two heroes of the piece are the tried-but-true servant girl Grusha, played with future-star wattage by second-year acting student Shaunette Renée Wilson, and Azdak, the anti-heroic scalliwag-turned-judge, done full comic justice by Steven Skybell. Both are put-upon nobodies who end up deciding the fate of Michael — child actors Kourtney Savage and Fred Thornley IV — born of the recently deposed, then reinstated upper class in the fictional Georgian town of Grusinia. Brecht’s play openly employs the “once upon a time” of fairytales and the “just deserts” ending of fables. Along the way it shows us the brutality of violent coups, the untrustworthiness of status, the vanity and cynicism of rich and poor alike, and that most ancient of plot devices, the course of true love.

The fun begins with the staging. An opening slow-mo tableau introduces us to what we can immediately assess as a corrupt regime: a Colonel (the chameleonic Max Gordon Moore), his wife Natella (a blonde, prissy, and underused Brenda Meaney), and their retinue of “ironshirts,” or heavily armed and armored guard. It’s not unusual to be diverted by the high-quality technique of theater at the Yale Rep, but here the sleight-of-hand of Chika Shimizu’s set design takes its cue from the play’s fast and loose use of the spectator’s imagination to fill in the gaps. There are exits and entrances through sliding scenery, charmingly moveable peasant huts, a rocking explosion that bifurcates the backdrop, a perilous crossing of a misty ravine, and — a lovely effect — a projection of monstrous icicles that begin to drip, then turn to blossoms. In the second act, a hanging corpse dominates the backdrop to keep before us the fact that kangaroo courts can kill whomever they choose.

In such a world, to expect fully fleshed-out characters would be silly. And it’s common for the Rep to boast one flat-out slapstick affair each season. While Brecht doesn’t quite fit the bill as readily as previous comic romps, such as Accidental Death of an Anarchist or the hit These! Paper! Bullets!, Caucasian Chalk Circle offers, oddly, the more enduring characters. Diamond and her very bright, mostly young cast of 18 actors — six in the Yale School of Drama, three others fairly recent grads — bring a sense of discovery to the proceedings. Wilson’s eye-on-the-prize Grusha animates the tale with beautiful poise and an undaunted heart, and Skybell skillfully underplays Azdak, a craven figure with the horse sense of true wisdom. Supporting help comes from spirited turns by Julyana Soelistyo as the mother of a dying son she wants to get married, and, later, a shrill nephew of Fat Prince who vies for the judgeship. Moore, in addition to playing the Colonel, shines as an unsympathetic vender and, especially, a drunken monk. Drew McVety’s canny Corporal pursues Grusha and later instates Azdak; Jonathan Majors is courtly as Simon, the soldier who carries a torch for Grusha; Anne Katharine Hägg is breathtaking in the role of Ludovica, a knowing innocent; Jesse J. Perez and Liz Wisan squabble as a peasant couple; then Perez and Meaney turn to play Grusha’s brother and his suspicious wife.

Perez keeps in play the hammy comic grace notes that have become a house style in Rep comedies. In his Rep debut, second-year School of Drama actor Aubbie Merrylees, as the dying groom who sprouts to new life once the military draft ends, adds to the repertoire with his ability to emit cartoonish sounds at will. His gasps and shrieks join a piercing bell and a resounding gavel in Matt Tierney’s sound design to keep us on edge. Sweeter sounds come from musicians onstage. Andrew Burnap provides smooth vocals and trumpet, and, Chivas Michael (as bumbling cop Shauva) and Daniel Schlosberg, the show’s music director (as a musician) sing crowd-pleasing back-up vocals to one of Azdak’s songs. Mention as well should go to Randy Duncan’s graceful choregraphy — including some high-stepping from Majors — David Lang’s tasteful score for Brecht’s accompanying songs, and Soule Golden’s colorful peasant garb and rich military finery.

Feeling timelessly timely, The Caucasian Chalk Circle makes us consider the strategies necessary to cope with military occupation — there’s always one somewhere — and the fitful nature of something like justice. The play flirts with the kind of stylization that makes for caricature, but the choices by this cast of deft actors keep the effects of reality before us. That reality includes risk, self-sacrifice, shaky principles, and a maternal hero who won’t destroy a child in order to keep it — or, by extension, a village or a nation in order to save it.

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