Bertolt Brecht’s ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle,’ directed by Kate Whoriskey and featuring new music from Michael Bodeen and Rob Milburn, opened on Sept. 2 at South Coast Repertory’s Segerstrom Stage. Brecht is known to infuse his plays with his own political and social views, and ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ is no exception.
Brecht’s play is based on an ancient Chinese story about a baby boy who is abandoned and two women, the birthmother and the woman who raises her baby, who battle for custody of the child. Time, war and issues of class make this story even more complex.
‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ takes place in the Caucasus region, which is modern-day Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and some states of the former Soviet Union. Brecht never specified the exact time period of this play, but it is assumed that the 19th century was what he had in mind due to his references to the Persian War.
The eccentric and outlandish costumes seemed to enhance the ambiguity of place and time. They blended European, Asian and Russian styles of dress, which either confused the audience at times, but most likely were employed to emphasize that Brecht’s play originated from a Chinese legend.
Although the cast as a whole delivered a lackluster performance, there were some characters who shined.
The Singer, played by Daniel Breaker, is the narrator of the play. His presence is, more or less, always on stage. Breaker provides an amazing aura on stage as he moves from his emotionally intense songs and comic relief to his interaction with the other characters.
Frank Wood, who plays Azdak, the judge who is really no judge at all but a drunkard, does a wonderful job at portraying the comical character. Most of the time, the upper class believes Azdak will rule in their favor, but they are as fooled as the audience. Just as the audience begins to think that Azdak is nothing more than a clown, he shows that he is more intelligent than he seems when he uses a circle drawn in chalk to determine the true mother of the boy.
Katrina Lenk, who plays Grusha, the maid who cares for the abandoned baby, gave an emotionally riveting performance as she showed the realism in her character’s suffering and sacrifices.
The simplistic set design was at times unappealing to the eye, but at other times, quite effective, such as when a human bridge was formed for Grusha to cross. A foil structure and walls made of paper were quite awkward and plainly unattractive, but at the same time they added to the eccentricity of the costume.
With the war in Iraq and the victims of Hurricane Katrina suffering in the Gulf Coast, some might try to escape these glaring issues by engaging in entertainment. Unfortunately, there are times when these issues should not be ignored. Brecht’s messages in ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ could not be any louder or clearer.
Regardless of whether the audience wanted to escape from current events, ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle,’ dealing with corruption, injustice and issues of class, appropriately reminded the audience that we cannot escape from reality.
Performances will continue through Oct. 9, with tickets priced from $20 to $58.