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Berkeley Daily Planet, August 6, 2004


Shotgun Stages Brecht Play in Bucolic Setting



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 feel—with some justification—that it’s an idea that’s become a little tired with overuse.

Instead, it looks like his group might be starting a “Brecht in the Park” tradition. Last summer’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage was so successful that it seemed an obvious choice to follow it this year with another one of the playwright’s recognized masterpieces, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. But so far no one’s promising anything about next year…except that Shotgun will be there with another free production.

The title and essential device of this year’s 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 year’s director, The Circle is “really good theater.” He’s fascinated by Brecht’s 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 didn’t want the audience to forget for a minute that they’re 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, hasn’t the nineteenth century concept of “the willing suspension of disbelief” always been the absolute definition of the theatrical experience?

Not any more.

It’s 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 drama’s 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, isn’t it a much more straightforward concept?)

In fine old theatrical tradition, Mayotte has taken the limitations of his situation and turned them into the production’s great strengths. In what could be viewed as pure grandiosity, Brecht’s 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 uninteresting”—as 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 deliberate—almost ceremonial—passage of the character’s 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, it’s a distancing technique which fits ideally into Brecht’s 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 Grusha’s 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.

It’s 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.

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