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Oakland Tribune, Friday, July 23, 2004

Truth, justice, free theater in Shotgun's 'Chalk Circle'



 LAST summer, the Shotgun Players veered from the summer Shakespeare path with a wily park production of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children."

That show was so successful and struck such a strong current events chord that Shotgun has returned to the Brecht well.

Although not as ferocious or as funny as "Mother Courage," Shotgun's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" is sure to be the most intellectually stimulating thing you'll do in Berkeley's John Hinkel Park this summer.

Using a translation by James and Tania Sterns (with verse translation by the poet W.H. Auden), director Cliff Mayotte forgoes Brecht's prologue and jumps directly into the story of upheaval in the Caucasus Mountains of Russian Georgia.

Played out on a non-set set by Greg Dunham in which batik fabrics provide some color and a trailer, gas cans and large wooden spools provide some furniture, this is the kind of play that doesn't require any frills at all.

Brecht is exposing the artifice of theater to heighten the power of storytelling.

But this is a big story full of rebellion, war, heroism, sacrifice and injustice, and that requires a lot of people and rudimentary costumes (by Valera Coble). Shotgun doesn't have a lot of people, so 10 performers -- eight actors plus two musicians who also essay small roles -- are playing about 60 characters.

Some actors, such as John Thomas and Sofia Ahmad, wear masks on the backs of their heads and play two characters at the same time. Ahmad, playing royal doctors fussing over a baby, even gets to fight with herself.

And then you've got some Brechtian confusion to keep you on your toes. The main character in this fusion of biblical tale, Communist manifesto and folk fable is Grusha, a kitchen servant who does a noble thing.

When the governor is murdered by rebels, his wife is more concerned with her gowns than with her baby, so she just abandons him in the palace when she flees.

Grusha can't bear to leave the baby, so she takes him and makes all kinds of sacrifices during the next three years to keep the baby healthy and reasonably happy.

At first, Grusha is played by Karla Acosta. When Grusha becomes engaged to good-hearted soldier Simon (Shoresh Alaudini), Acosta's sweet sincerity makes the character immediately appealing.

Then, when Grusha hits the road with the baby, she is played by Trish Mulholland (last year's Mother Courage), whose tenacity and wry humor takes the character in a new direction.

By the end of the play, when Grusha is fighting against the baby's real mother for custody of the child, Ahmad has taken over the role, and Mulholland is playing the snooty governor's wife who says that the mere smell of real people gives her a migraine.

If you're not paying attention, such switcheroos can seem confusing and pointless. The key role of a drunken but very nearly just judge named Azdak is also played by three people. In the first part of his story, the judge is played by Mulholland, who apparently gets to play everyone, which is fine because she's fantastic no matter what she's doing. Then Thomas takes over for a while.

During the crucial trial scene in which a child is placed in a chalk circle and pulled by his dueling mothers, Andrew Alabran plays Azdak with a wonderfully funny sense of boozy justice tinged with a desperate need for bribes.

The first half of this 21/2-hour production lurches to and fro like a horse cart on a bumpy mountain road. But in Act 2, when Azdak's story and the battle over the baby comes into play, the pacing picks up considerably.

Brecht even throws in an uncharacteristic happy ending. It's almost as if he wanted to make sure that picnicking playgoers left the park delighted by humanity and justice instead of disgusted by the corrupt state of the world.

As in last year's "Mother Courage," music plays a big role in the Brechtian scheme of things. Musicians Josh Pollock and Daniel Bruno do amazing things with percussion, a banjo and a bullhorn as they accompany more than a dozen musical numbers for which they composed the music.

In terms of vocals, the songs are shaky, although narrator Louise Chegwidden handles her tunes well.

Two songs emerge as fully formed, exciting musical numbers. Thomas sings about Grusha arriving at her brother's home, and then Mulholland and Thomas sing about the travails of war and peace. Both songs have the heft and power of a worldy wise spiritual.

The same could be said of "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" itself. Brecht's faith in the struggle and survival of truth and justice amid foul greed wavers but is never consumed by cynicism. As the narrator says, "In the bloodiest of times, there are still good people."

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