Among Bertolt Brecht’s more popular plays, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is many things at once. It’s a farcical depiction of government corruption, an inspiring tale of perseverance during wartime, a blistering indictment of war profiteering by the ruling class, a Marxist parable about the right of property and who most deserves it. First and perhaps least, it’s an adaptation of The Chalk Circle, a Chinese play from around AD 1300 in which a Solomon-like judge places a baby in a chalk-drawn circle and challenges the two women who claim to be its mother to an infant tug-of-war to determine custody.
Brecht sets the action in Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains (thus the name, in case you thought it was meant to signify whitey), among a series of revolutions and counterrevolutions in the shadow of war with Persia. In the midst of a bloody coup, the fleeing wife of the executed governor leaves her baby behind in all the confusion of ensuring that her wardrobe is intact, so the kitchen maid Grusha takes young Michael with her in her flight from the city, sheltering him from the “ironshirts” who would murder him. Although her only wish is to wait for her love who is off fighting the Persians, she is forced to marry to divert unwelcome attention from the child, and finally has to defend the boy from his own greedy, grasping mother.
For all that, it makes for an excellent afternoon in the park when Shotgun Players offer it up for free on weekends in the open-air amphitheater at North Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park. Between this and last year’s production of Mother Courage, Shotgun may be on its way to making Brecht feel as much at home in this sylvan setting as Shakespeare did in Berkeley Shakes’ day. If old Bertolt keeps his aesthetic distance, it won’t be the fault of this whip-smart production, with an excellent percussive score by Six Eye Colombia cohorts Josh Pollock and Dan Bruno, here performing under the tragedian moniker Goatsong.
The eight-actor ensemble is spread out in multiple roles, and the two main roles of Grusha and Azdak the judge are played by three actors apiece at different stages of the play. The surrounding paths of the park work to their advantage in Grusha’s long journey, and there’s some evocative use of puppets and masks: The governor is played by a large, silent puppet handed back and forth between his wife and an adjutant, the baby grows from a bundle of cloth into a fine little puppet, and each pair of squabbling doctors or lawyers is played by a single actor wearing a stern second face on the back of his or her head. It’s an effective device, because characters who function as pawns in the play become puppets, and interchangeable duos become one.
Less effective is a tacked-on prologue by Brecht scholar Bluma Goldstein that the singer/narrator uses by way of greeting to ease us into the action. It’s the sort of invocation that’s often cut from Shakespeare plays, replete with once-upon-a-times, and here it’s a little distracting that it’s obviously not part of the play and cites Brecht by name. Louise Chegwidden is a commanding presence as the singer, however, and pulls it off nicely. She brings a stately poise to her role as our guide through the story, ceremonially passing on the robes of office from one Grusha or Azdak to the next, and singing the unspoken thoughts of characters in key scenes. She also steps into the action in a number of small roles, most notably the fugitive Grand Duke, but when she does so this too seems a ceremonial gesture, as if the singer herself is filling these roles. Were the play in any way a naturalistic drama, that aesthetic distance might be a drawback, but in this more stylized setting it just reinforces the sense that this is a story being told, and told for a reason.
The tale starts off a little shaky, partly because Karla Acosta is overly coquettish as Grusha. She’s full of girlish spunk that rings a little harshly in an early courting scene in which she becomes promised to Simon the soldier (Shoresh Alaudini) before the shit hits the fan, but it winds up providing a nice contrast to Trish Mulholland’s striving, weary, ever-enduring Grusha, protecting the infant Michael through endless hardship on the road. When she can go on no longer, Sofia Ahmad plays Grusha as a frail innocent, wise-eyed and full of grace, and because it’s she whom we follow to the trial, she keeps our sympathy close at hand.
As for the drunken, seemingly random, and candidly venal judge Azdak, Mulholland is a mite too frenzied and mad-eyed as Azdak the clerk who unwittingly shelters the fleeing Grand Duke, but John Thomas brings an authoritative air of savvy corruption to Azdak the judge at the height of his powers, and Andrew Alabran is excellent as a fallen Azdak at the end of his rope, recalled to life from beatings and near-certain execution to judge the case of the disputed infant. His face-offs with Ahmad’s Grusha are remarkably effective, because they convey that for all his caprice and dissoluteness and her angelic righteousness, they’re both just put-upon peasants in way over their heads. That we the audience have no reason to believe this squirming, fearful judge is in any position to do the right thing makes the denouement all the more satisfying.
This production is blessed with a generally solid cast, and the rotating nature of the ensemble, in which each actor plays many parts, has an egalitarian effect: the standouts are much better in some roles than in others, and players who are unconvincing in some roles have moments to shine in others. Alabran is hilarious as the dying man Grusha marries to prevent loose talk about an unwed mother, and quite funny as the sycophantic Fat Prince and a terrified but well-meaning peasant wife. In addition to her affecting turn as Grusha and madcap Azdak, Mulholland is marvelous as the swelled and preening governor’s wife and Grusha’s grimacing, agitated mother-in-law. Thomas’ resonant voice serves him well as a pair of lawyers (though he had some trouble with his lines on opening day), and he’s also funny as a swaggering ironshirt and beautifully pained and eager to please as Grusha’s cowardly, henpecked brother, whose pious wife is played with an effective shrillness by Acosta. Though Alaudini’s Simon is a bit stiff, he and David Stein are quietly effective as a variety of ironshirts, unruly wedding guests, and petitioning farmers.
The vocal performances are also variable and sometimes discordant, as the dialogue and narration drift freely in and out of song (the translation being used here is by James and Tania Sterns, with W.H. Auden’s help adapting the songs). The music, however — an unsettling and exotic mix of odd percussion, banjo, whistles, wind tubes, and the like — is always beautifully suited to the action at hand, ensuring that we pay close attention without getting too comfortable. Brecht would have wanted it that way.