Berkeley Daily Planet, August 6, 2004
Shotgun Stages Brecht Play in Bucolic Setting
By BETSY M. HUNTON
Patrick Dooley, the Shotgun Players founder and Artistic Director, is determined not to do Shakespeare in John Hinkle Park. Anything, he says, But not Shakespeare. Not in the park. He seems to feelwith some justificationthat its an idea thats become a little tired with overuse.
Instead, it looks like his group might be starting a Brecht in the Park tradition. Last summers production of Bertolt Brechts Mother Courage was so successful that it seemed an obvious choice to follow it this year with another one of the playwrights recognized masterpieces, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. But so far no ones promising anything about next year
except that Shotgun will be there with another free production.
The title and essential device of this years play is based on a very old Chinese work similar to the Biblical tale of Solomon and the two mothers. In this case, the judge places the baby in a circle drawn with chalk and decrees that whoever pulls the baby away from the other will get custody. The two women are the self-centered wife of the deceased governor who forgot to take her infant with her when she fled an insurrection, and a humble maid who saved the child at great cost to herself.
For Cliff Mayotte, this years director, The Circle is really good theater. Hes fascinated by Brechts ability to tell a really good story while at the same time keeping the audience aware that this is a story being told. Mayotte goes on: Brecht didnt want the audience to forget for a minute that theyre sitting in a park listening to a story being told.
Even now, more than 50 years after the play was first performed as a student production in Minnesota, and long after it has been admitted to the ranks of accepted masterpieces, it seems an idea that borders on absurdity: one so radical that it is bound to be self-defeating. After all, hasnt the nineteenth century concept of the willing suspension of disbelief always been the absolute definition of the theatrical experience?
Not any more.
Its one of the ways in which Brecht broke with standard theatrical tradition. The very idea that the audience should remain conscious of the artificiality of the dramas presentation can still seem radical. But a presentation like the one in John Hinkle can make the idea very persuasive. (And when you think about it, isnt it a much more straightforward concept?)
In fine old theatrical tradition, Mayotte has taken the limitations of his situation and turned them into the productions great strengths. In what could be viewed as pure grandiosity, Brechts script calls for a cast of around 60 characters (he leaves the exact number a little vague). Mayotte dismissed the idea as to me, at least, theatrically uninterestingas well as requiring far more actors than the company could afford. He actually uses only 10, which includes pressing the two musicians (Dan Bruno and Josh Pollock) into double duty.
While many productions require actors to perform more than one role, what is innovative, and effective in The Circle is that many of these transformations occur on stage, with the deliberatealmost ceremonialpassage of the characters role from one actor to another. Once the initial shock is over, it becomes an important part of the presentation of the two main characters, providing opportunities for different aspects of their roles to be developed.
Again, its a distancing technique which fits ideally into Brechts intent. He was totally determined that his audience never lose sight of the fact that they were being presented with a story, not a slice of life. One thing that is not clarified in the otherwise helpful program is that, according to Cliff Mayotte, the two acts overlap in time, with Act Two starting over on the Easter Sunday when the Governor is assassinated, setting off the main storyline of the play.
The three actors who play the maid, Grusha, are (in sequence) Karla Acosta, Trish Mulholland, and Sofia Ahmad. Each brings to the role different intelligence and shadings appropriate to the different parts of Grushas journey. The other main character, Azdak, the drunken and dishonest judge, is first played by Trish Mulholland, and then by John Thomas. During the trial scene, Andrew Alabran assumes the role.
Its a fascinating play with some very fine acting and a totally terrific job of staging. Only be sure to pay attention or you might get lost.