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Entertainment & Arts

Review: It’s rich versus poor in Antaeus Theatre’s ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’

“The Caucasian Chalk Circle”
Child custody is settled the old-fashioned way in “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” with, front from left, Liza Seneca, Gabriela Bonet and Claudia Elmore; in the rear, from left, Alex Knox, Turner Frankosky, Steve Hofvendahl and Troy Guthrie.
(Jenny Graham)

Who owns what and why? The moral conundrum at the heart of Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 play, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” has grown even more relevant with the widening gaps in wealth.

Regardless of your political persuasion, Antaeus Theatre Company’s revival stylishly fulfills the key principles of Brecht’s “epic theater”: direct audience engagement and intellectual provocation.

Director Stephanie Shroyer’s immersive approach to Brecht’s play-within-a-play construction begins in the theater lobby, where characters emerge from the waiting audience to launch the framing tale — a dispute between two groups of peasants over a strip of fertile land newly liberated from foreign occupation. Should the land revert to the goatherds who previously lived there? Or to the neighboring villagers with more productive plans for agricultural use?

To explore the underlying question of ownership, we move into the theater, where the peasants stage the allegorical morality fable that forms the bulk of the show. Amid the chaos of a bloody civil war, a kitchen maid named Grusha (Liza Seneca) rescues an infant fecklessly abandoned by a fleeing aristocrat (Claudia Elmore) and raises the child as her own. When peace is restored, Elmore’s character returns and demands the child’s return in order to lay claim to an inheritance. To determine who is the “true” parent, the presiding judge, Azdak (Steve Hofvendahl) invokes the ritual of the Chalk Circle, a variation on the biblical tale of King Solomon and the baby.

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A crisp 2015 translation by Alistair Beaton sharpens Brecht’s arguments and situates the fable and its framing tale in a context that’s more universal than the post-World War II setting of Eric Bentley’s original English translation.

Faithfully adhering to Brecht’s characters and plot, the Antaeus ensemble’s abstract style precludes emotional catharsis and ensures we never forget the theatrical artifice we’re witnessing.

When Hofvendahl’s judge declares “I don’t have a good heart — I’m an intellectual,” he means business. Unfortunately, his flat delivery misses most of the ironic comedy in this wily rascal, accidentally elevated to power, whose decidedly eccentric verdicts somehow manage to achieve true justice.

The production fares better in evoking sympathy for Grusha’s selfless devotion to her adopted child, and for her star-crossed romance with a well-meaning soldier (Michael Khachanov). As part of the lively original score jointly composed by the ensemble, Khachanov also shows his virtuosity with the duduk, a hand-carved reed instrument.

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In sequences of hauntingly beautiful physicality, the ensemble forms the banks of a rippling stream or a treacherous mountain bridge. Representing the child as a doll, skillfully animated by Gabriela Bonet, is an inventive comic touch.

Nevertheless, the play’s didactic challenge and call to action remain deadly serious. The judge inadvertently puts it more succinctly than even he realizes: “You people want justice, but can you pay for it?”

'The Caucasian Chalk Circle'
Where: Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale
When: 8 p.m. Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 26
Tickets: $35
Info: (818) 506-1983 or www.Antaeus.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

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