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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 basic elements.

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 child).

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.

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