CIRCLE THIS ONE
by Kestryl Lowrey
published May 2, 2008
The Caucasian Chalk
now playing Off Broadway at The Theaters at
45 Bleecker Street
through May 11
What does it cost to do a good deed in a
bad world? Is it worth sacrificing yourself to save someone else's child? Does caring for a child make him yours? Does ownership rightly
lie with the worker or the boss? Bertolt Brecht specialized in theatre critiquing the system of
capitalism and the business of war, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle sits squarely within this
theoretical approach. Though any production examining political ideal systems runs the risk of
being didactic, in the hands of director Margot Newkirk and the Hipgnosis Theatre Company, the play is lively and engaging whilst provoking
the audience into more contemplative thought.
On the heels of a foreign war going badly,
Georgi Abashvilli, the governor of a village, is killed in a coup. As the other nobles flee,
Abashvilli’s wife (Ayanna Siverls) prioritizes her dresses and leaves her child behind. The child
is found by Grusha (Rachel Tieman), a good-hearted kitchen maid who takes the child in and gradually sacrifices herself and her name in order
to protect the innocent.
Parts of the production are narrated in
song, using Brecht's text and music composed by Demetrios Bonaros. This helps to distance the
audience from identifying too strongly with the main characters, while allowing the broad scope of the plot to fully resonate on the
stage. Margot Newkirk makes admirable use of the space, a long rectangle with audience seated on
all four sides. The performers circle in and out, without masking or curtains to mark what
qualifies as an exit and what is a continuation of the action.
It's clear that Hipgnosis values their
ensemble, which shines whenever there are more than three actors on stage. This is not to say
that the smaller scenes are any less satisfying, but simply that the performers work together in a manner that well befits the label of "epic
The script is tidier than many Brecht
plays, wrapping up with an unambiguously positive resolution. The company made judicious cuts to
the script, mostly helping to keep it manageable and engaging. Though the second act dragged during repetitive courtroom scenes, the necessity
of portraying the judge's total corruption and ineptitude explains why the majority of these scenes were retained.
Dealing with themes that run universal in
any capitalist system, but particularly resonate in light of America's own war, Hipgnosis’ revival of The Caucasian Chalk Circle's interrogation of private versus public morals is relevant and timely. By
requiring audiences to examine the barriers justice in a corrupt world, Chalk Circle encourages us
to consider good deeds not on the basis of their personal cost, but rather, their broader social worth.