Chalked up to Experience

28. February, 2010 Theater 1 comment

Director John Doyle previously came to American Conservatory Theater to kick off the national tour of his acclaimed stripped-down Broadway staging of Sweeney Todd, in which all the instruments were played by the actors. Now he’s back at ACT taking a similar tack with the core acting company and a few ACT MFA students on Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, in a new translation by local actress Domenique Lozano.

The ACT cast of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Photo by Kevin Berne

Here too the actors play the instruments, although not much–a little tapping on a bucket here, a little sawing at a fiddle there. The most actual playing that’s done is by Manoel Felciano as the narrator, strumming a pleasant guitar or plucking the fiddle. The Caucasian Chalk Circle isn’t a musical per se, but there’s a lot of singing in it, drifting in and out of the scenes and delivering the narration between them, and here that involves a lot of standing in line facing the audience, singing in dissonant quasi-harmony. The rather flat music is composed and directed by Nathaniel Stookey, but not so you’d notice. The way these bits are staged makes it a little too easy to zone out and miss the setup for what’s to come, because the static singing registers as the part where nothing’s going on.

What’s going on is this: The decadent governor is overthrown and killed in a coup. During the confusion the soldier Simon proposes to the housemaid Grusche. She accepts, but each has to run off to attend to duties elsewhere. The governor’s wife is too concerned with hurriedly packing her wardrobe as she escapes, failing no notice that she’s left her baby Michael behind. Grusche can’t bring herself to abandon the baby to be killed by the new regime, so she flees with Michael in tow, passing him off as her baby as she struggles to survive and protect him from the bounty on his head. It all leads up to the central parable of the title, a struggle for custody of the child between the birth mother who abandoned him and the one who’s taken care of him all this time, in a variant of the tale of the wisdom of Solomon (although more directly inspired by the 14th-century Chinese play The Circle of Chalk).

Behind a chain-link fence, Doyle’s set looks like a large empty lot littered with low piles of rubbish: a washbasin, a baby carriage, an electric fan, and lots of paper lying around. Large patterned backdrops and the obscuring fence rise and fall willy-nilly throughout the show to indicate Grusche’s constant movement–and perhaps the confusion of war when things come periodically crashing down–but there seldom seems to be any rhyme or reason to it in terms of signifying any particular place or event.

Omozé Idehenre is a sympathetically sincere and practical Grusche, and her fellow MFA student Nick Childress makes a particularly earnest soldier Simon, who sometimes takes on other roles like most of the cast, but in his case for some reason without changing his uniform a bit.

Jack Willis is amusing as the hapless governor, a drunken monk, and most notably as the unabashedly roguish judge Azdak. René Augesen swaggers tartily as the governor’s boorish wife in tight jeans, sparkly shirt and perpetually raised cigarette. She’s all nerves as Grusche’s high-strung sister-in-law and plays it particularly broad in male roles such as the usurping prince’s callow nephew that he wants to set up as a judge, who for some reason or no reason at all keeps shooting into the air during a mock trial.

Rod Gnapp is every inch the menacing gangster as the prince who takes over in a coup and amusingly aggravating as the nagging peasant whom Grusche marries on his deathbed to give Michael an appearance of legitimacy. Anthony Fusco turns up as a concerned governor’s aide, a crass and loathsome soldier, and Grusche’s stern, no-nonsense mother-in-law.

Gregory Wallace gives a sympathetic performance as Grusche’s beaten-down brother, too afraid of what people will think to shelter her long, and also pops up as a Jamaican-accented soldier and a squeaky-voice farmer’s wife. Besides the omnipresent narrator, Felciano also plays Azdak’s dim policeman sidekick, and Caroline Hewitt fills out the cast as assorted servants and refugees and a young sexpot for Azdak to leer at.

There’s a confusing bit of business throughout the first act in which Simon keeps glancing at pages in his hand, making it look as if Childress isn’t yet off book.  He’s handed the pages when he first enters, as if all the characters are going to put on a show, but if that’s the framing concept there’s really nothing else in the production that shows it.  As it stands it’s just a bizarre staging decision that doesn’t fit in with anything else that’s going on.

Another odd choice is to stage the climactic trial like a limp standup comedy act, with Willis coming down into the audience and chatting at patrons as a weird substitute for the divorce case Azdak is supposed to be handling at the same time as Grusche’s case, making the ending not make nearly as much sense as it usually does.  And just for the heck of it, the titular chalk circle of the story’s resolution isn’t even drawn out of chalk but all those pieces of paper on the ground, swept into something vaguely resembling a circle.

Brecht’s text still has bite, from the talk about wanting justice but not being willing to pay for it to the question of whether property should belong to those who would make best use of it, but it’s a bit buried in the standup shtick and distracting add-on pop culture references, from “change we can believe in” to “here come de judge.” Ultimately Doyle’s stark but undynamic staging amuses every now and then but doesn’t exactly command attention.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle,
Through March 14
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Bonus links: My interview with translator Domenique Lozano from the new issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine, and my 2004 East Bay Express preview and review of Shotgun Players’ production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Show #24 of 2010, attended February 24.

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  1. 3 / 2 / 2010 3:15 am

    See, this is why I don’t go to anything at ACT anymore. I feel like I’m not really missing much.





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