The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Written by Bertolt Brecht
An ingenious start to 2013
|Promethean Theatre Ensemble presents|
|The Caucasian Chalk Circle|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Chalk has many uses, from the innocent (making lists) to the disturbing (tracing dead bodies). The chalk in Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s innovative and enjoyable production of Bertolt Brecht’s political classic, does all this and more: it plays a pivotal role in a world-changing decision. In two and a half hours of Gilbert and Sullivan meets “The Wizard of Oz”, keep an eye on the chalk.
Royal kitchen servant Grusha (Sara Gorsky) finds happiness despite the revolution occurring around her, when a chance meeting with sweet soldier Simon (Josh Nordmark) leads to a marriage proposal. But when the Governor (Tommy Venuti) is executed and his materialistic wife (Jennifer Roehm) abandons the heir to the throne, Grusha’s conscience gets the best of her. Knowing that baby Michael is in mortal danger, she takes him and flees to the northern mountains – where every minor decision has a major consequence.
Director Ed Rutherford decided to set the play not in the Caucasus Mountains of the title, but (according to the program) “a limbo that is the last refuge found by all that flee human injustice, cruelty and class warfare in every era”. I’m not sure if this lofty ambition plays out, but the strong production values lend a dystopian feel that’s quite appropriate. Joe Dybdal’s set design of shelves with Jeremiah Barr’s props, surrounded by black walls festooned with chalk words and drawings, isn’t the most original, but works well for this story. Actor-musicians led by the golden-voiced Cary Davenport lovingly interpret Matt Kahler’s original score, which adds just the right notes of melancholy humor. And Barr deserves kudos for designing the puppet of Michael as a toddler – it’s blank, chipped and positively Brechtian.
The two major problems with this Circle lie in its length and one of its actresses. Brecht’s script (so politically controversial it wasn’t produced in his native Germany until a decade after its publication and U.S. premiere) devotes three long scenes to Grusha and baby Michael’s journey through the mountains. After intermission, the fourth scene – introducing the essential but secondary character of Azdak (Teddy Lance) – is rather jarring. Grusha is not present for the entirety of this lengthy scene, which is rather jarring considering that up until this point, the audience is completely invested in her story. Though director Rutherford obviously can’t alter the original text, the fourth scene, though extremely well-done, feels extremely long as well.
Secondly, Roehm is miscast as the Governor’s Wife. A villain from her first entrance, when she blithely ignores peasants on the way to Easter Mass while handing off her son to nurses, the character has endless comedic and dramatic potential. Roehm isn’t a bad actress, just a subtle one, and has a tendency to underplay the shallow, selfish woman who thinks nothing of leaving her own child while she debates what dresses to pack for escape. She plays a gorgeous clarinet and shines in smaller roles, but this lead is just out of her reach.
Governer’s Wife aside, Rutherford has cast a tremendous ensemble, many of which play multiple roles and instruments with aplomb. As Simon, Nordmark projects an adorable loyalty (and plays a mean cello). Lance is the comic highlight as the alcoholic, reluctant judge Azdak – and is cleverly double cast as a drunk monk in Circle’s first half. Nicole Hand is gleefully terrifying as the two-faced Prince Kazbecki, and Kate Suffern stands out as the Prince’s sniveling nephew. But the real stunner is Gorsky as Grusha: a challenging, complicated dream role for an actress. Gorksy is a natural, relatable underdog, determined to do what’s best for a child who isn’t even hers. Every facial expression and line delivery had me rooting for Grusha, hoping she would find happiness again.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle has all the elements of first-class fairy tale: a young woman at odds with society, a voyage that’s often fraught, sneaky political commentary and some bathroom humor thrown in for good measure. The production is not only my first experience with Promethean Theatre Ensemble, but also my first review of 2013. If Circle is any indication, I am going to have a good year indeed.
Caucasian Chalk Circle continues through February 9th at City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $20, and are available online through BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at PromeanTheatre.org. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Susan V. Adler, Cary Davenport, Sara Gorsky, Nicole Hand, Addison Heimann, Brendan Hutt, Anne Korazczyk, Theodore Lance, Aaron Lawson, Alex Mauney, Elissa Newcorn, Josh Nordmark, Jennifer Roehm, Kate Suffern, Tommy Venuti
behind the scenes
Ed Rutherford (director), Beth Wolf (artistic director), Sara Gorsky (executive director), Matt Kahler (composer, music director), Liz Cooper (lighting), Daniel Carlyon (sound design), Joe Dybdal (set), Beth Miller (costumes), Jeremiah Barr (props), Nathaniel Nesheim-Case (stage manager), Jack Lewis (production coordinator)