Friday, March 11, 2011

Pipeline Triumphs With Their New Production of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Taking on The Caucasian Chalk Circle would be a challenge for any theater company, even a veteran one. So it is an awe-inspiring surprise to see the fairly young Pipeline Theatre Company tackle one of Brecht’s “epic theatre” pieces. With a refreshing boldness, under the direction of Anya Saffir, Pipeline masterfully rises to the challenge in their production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play within a play that connects two stories both dealing with the right of possession. The play opens with a frame story set in Post-World War II Russia where two agricultural communes are debating over land ownership. While accusations of thievery are thrown around, the communes come to the agreement that the land should go to the commune who will tend to and use it best. To commemorate the reached settlement, the commune that retains the land performs a musical (led by a famous, hired singer and his band) for the conceding commune. What unfolds then is a folkish musical lead by the omniscient narrator-like character, The Singer. The tale of the new play, set against the backdrop of civil war, revolves around Grusha, a maid trying to keep an aristocratic child she saved and raised after it was abandoned by his biological mother. When the mother comes back for her child, a ridiculous but poignant custody battle ensues in the courtroom of the crafty judge Azdak. At the end of the trial and the musical, the message that resonates is the same as the one in the original frame story: “what there is should go to those who are good for it.”

Intertwining drama and music, all on a bare but constantly alive and changing set, The Caucasian Chalk Circle triumphs in style and technique. Every actor plays numerous roles, rotating between the two plays as well as serving as musicians and singers. The entire cast and crew are fantastic as they work seamlessly to bring together this layered, complicated, ensemble-driven play. Cormac Bluestone’s original music manages to be both lush and delicate as it adds to the folklore nature of the play. The songs also help to break the fourth wall. They speak to the audience by renouncing and celebrating the emotional ups and downs of the plot and actions of the characters. But they also carry the plot and action by fluidly connecting scene to scene and the play within a play.

Beyond its aesthetic and entertaining qualities, The Caucasian Chalk Circle also provokes the audience to truly think about Brecht’s themes. The desire for justice and attempts at charity and goodness during the power struggles of war are all manifested through the actions of two of the main characters Grusha and Azdak. Both characters, driven by a strong sense of justice, help others despite knowing the threat of trouble their selflessness and helpfulness attracts. Maura Hooper shines as Grusha. She brings an amazing duality of sensitivity and strength to the character. Thanks to her performance, we admire Grusha; we sympathize with her but never pity her. Gil Zabarsky bolts onto the stage as Azdak, providing us with the play’s main bulk of humor. He brilliantly embodies the character’s cunning and verbose wit. He leads us through the second half of the show with his pitch-perfect comedic timing and commanding presence.

Like Grusha walking off with the baby into the mountains, I walked out of The Caucasian Chalk Circle feeling like I had stolen something from Pipeline...something very special that demands my admiration and respect. It is a show that not only possesses the power to alter the minds of the audience but has successfully transformed Pipeline itself into a theater company to be reckoned with. While discussing epic theatre, Brecht once wrote: “instead of sharing an experience the spectator must come to grips with things. At the same time it would be quiet wrong to try and deny emotion to this kind of theatre.” This seems to be the best way to describe my viewing experience of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Watching it is an ideal but rare theater-going experience--you will be entertained, emotionally engaged, and you’ll find yourself challenged intellectually and philosophically. The performance will stay with you, urging you to revisit and contemplate its beauty and meaning. Do not miss out on this experience. Go watch The Caucasian Chalk Circle immediately. To not see it, would be a true injustice.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle
By: Bertolt Brecht
Directed by: Anya Saffir
Music by: Cormac Bluestone
Running now through March 19th at the Theater for the New City
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