SF Chronicle, July 26, 2004
Baby, you don't know the half of it -- this is bigger than you
--By Robert Hurwitt
The parable is as ancient as Solomon, but its application is as immediate
as the situation in Iraq or the choices on the next ballot. The play was
written in the 1940s with a major Broadway production in mind, but the Shotgun
Players capably demonstrate how effective it can be when stripped to its most
Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" is an evocatively simple
tale so cleverly laid out as to be immensely rich in theatrical possibilities.
Cliff Mayotte's Shotgun production, the company's annual free show in
Berkeley's John Hinkel Park, exploits its simplicity to highlight its
political-moral themes and dramatic vitality. Some of the performances could
be stronger and some production elements falter, but this "Circle" is as
engaging as it is unexpectedly, subversively dynamic.
The central story is as familiar as Solomon's decision in the case of the
two women who claimed the same baby. Brecht (and his collaborator Ruth Berlau)
borrowed a Chinese version, from the 13th century "Chalk Circle" play
attributed to Li Hsing-dao, in which the judge -- rather than ordering that
the baby be sliced in two -- has the competing mothers try to pull the child
out of a circle (she who succeeds is the one least worried about hurting the
The story had fascinated Brecht since early in his career. He'd parodied
it in "Man Is Man" and rewritten it as a short story ("The Augsberg Chalk
Circle"). Living in exile in Santa Monica, and faced with an opportunity to
finally get a show on Broadway (which proved illusory), he expanded it into a
larger parable on social justice. It was 1944, and Brecht was heavily involved
with other leading German intellectuals in trying to influence Allied planning
for a post-Hitler government.
Brecht framed the familiar fable as a lesson in the allocation of
resources, performed and pondered by peasants in the Caucusus after World War
II. He also cunningly heightened the drama over who gets the child -- the
wealthy Governor's Wife who'd abandoned him, in favor of saving her fine
dresses, when fleeing after her husband was overthrown (and who needs him now
to claim his inheritance); or Grusha, the simple, good-hearted maid who'd
risked her life to rescue the baby and raise him.
We all know how the story is supposed to come out. So Brecht, having
brought us up to the trial in the first act, detours into a different tale for
much of the second -- a raunchy, politically incorrect, picaresque comedy
about how the smart, coarse, sardonic and unpredictable peasant Azdak became
the judge who will decide the case. He tends to favor the underdog, which
should be good for Grusha. But he's weak and very much on the take, opening
each trial by extending both hands and announcing, "I receive."
The whole play worked to memorably scintillating effect in Tony Taccone's
Berkeley Repertory Theatre production 10 years ago. Lacking the Rep's acting
and technical resources, Mayotte cannily resorts to a story-theater approach
that dovetails nicely with Brecht's parable format. A few blankets on a rough
frame, two large spools and a crude, versatile wagon serve for a set (by Greg
Dunham). An ensemble of 10 steps in and out of all the roles -- with three
actors taking turns as Grusha and three as Azdak -- in Valera Coble's
eclectic Central Asian costumes.
Mayotte scraps the opening peasant-council scene that sets up the fable,
replacing it with a snappy, humorous prologue by Brecht scholar Bluma
Goldstein -- delivered with wry, focused authority by singer-narrator Louise
Chegwidden -- that establishes the story-telling format (though it doesn't
set up the final moral as well as it could). For the rest of the play he uses
the early translation by James and Tania Sterns, working with W.H. Auden,
which nicely captures Brecht's sardonic humor and distinctively concentrated,
muscular dramatic poetry.
Scenes flow into one another with compelling fluidity to the inventively
crude percussive score and song settings by Daniel Bruno and Joshua Pollock.
Karla Acosta's sweetly clueless Grusha draws us into the tale, both in her
unwilling captivation by the helpless infant and the affectingly tender
formality of her courtship with the soldier Simon (Shoresh Alaudini).
Trish Mulholland -- commandingly unlikable as the haughty Governor's
Wife and a grasping mother-in-law -- takes over as a struggling Grusha
learns some hard lessons while sacrificing to protect the child (then returns
in the second act as the first, drunken, disorderly and engagingly wise-fool
Azdak). A radiantly weary, worn but determined Sofia Ahmad embodies Grusha
through the conclusion, as Azdak is assumed, in turn, by a solidly roguish
John Thomas and a desperately rebellious Andrew Alabran.
Alabran is impressive as a servile, arrogant aristocrat as well, and as a
cynical, malingering draft dodger, among other roles. Many of the actors
aren't quite so versatile, but Mayotte's story-theater approach is wonderfully
forgiving in allowing the suggestion of a character to serve for the whole. It
doesn't work as well in the songs. Though Chegwidden, Mulholland and others
handle the tunes reasonably well, only Thomas' resonant voice carries well in
the outdoor setting.
Mayotte makes some clever use of large puppets, but the device of having
a masked actor play two roles simultaneously is more amusing than effective.
The strength of his "Chalk Circle" lies less in his more inventive strokes
than its clarity and fidelity to Brecht's intent. When Azdak grills the
commander in chief about profitable war contracts, Brecht's "Circle" seems as
prescient as it is witty and wise.