THEATER REVIEW : ‘Chalk Circle’ Adds Some Powerful Curves


Cornerstone Theater Company has done it again.

The ensemble specializes in putting a contemporary, community-oriented spin on classic texts. Now, as the troupe ends a 15-month community project in Watts, it has taken on Bertolt Brecht.

“The Central Ave. Chalk Circle”--a funny and supremely theatrical version of Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle”--provides further evidence that Cornerstone does some of the most inventive theater around.

Brecht purists and die-hard Marxists may not be pleased by the large corporate sponsorship logo emblazoned on the programs or by the evening’s unfailingly playful tone. Yet Bill Rauch’s staging is a lot more watchable than the playwright’s “epic theater” has generally proven. The alienation effect is out; community is in.


Rauch casts a few amateurs from the neighborhood alongside Cornerstone stalwarts, and stages the action in the warehouse-like environs of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. That the creators stitched a rich tapestry of song and image in this unpromising space says much about the talents of everyone involved.

The adapted text, by critic Eric Bentley and Los Angeles poet Lynn Manning, relocates the Russian provincial setting to California in the near future, when the state has seceded from the Union and is wracked with civil war. Azdak (Shishir Kurup), a funky artist in paint-splattered coveralls, narrates the tale of Gertha Gibson (Sandra Layne), a Watts janitor who adopts the abandoned baby of the assassinated Los Angeles mayor (Alejandro Andrade).

Gertha flees with the child to Northern California but is captured and put on trial for kidnaping. Dispensing justice is none other than Azdak, who in Act II appears as a drunk, hopelessly corrupt judge. In the climax he devises a Solomonic test of parenthood between Gertha and the child’s real mother, the vain movie star Antoinette (Page Leong).

The actors are in constant motion, in the arena or on the wooden catwalks encircling it. The first act ends with police cars zooming into the far upstage area and officers snatching away Gertha’s child. Even the props and costumes yield a deliberately cartoonish flavor, with tailored garbage sacks for vests, robes and shoes, and dresses made of foil and crepe paper.

Equally memorable are the 11 songs by Kurup and Manning, which--from the bluesy “Sis Sweet Sis” to the lullaby “Child’s Song” as played by a four-piece onstage band--far surpass the Kurt Weill knockoffs typical of Brecht revivals.

The sole major problem exists in Brecht’s original. The second act is simply far too long, with several increasingly tedious examples of Azdak’s corruption playing out before Gertha’s case is heard. Streamlining some of this material would help, but on the whole this remains a powerful “Chalk Circle.”


* “The Central Ave. Chalk Circle,” Watts Labor Community Action Committee, 10950 Central Ave., Watts. Thursday-Saturday, 7 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $5. (213) 567-8634. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.