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Complex, engaging Brecht classic opening at Antaeus Theatre

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In Bertold Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” Grusha (Liza Seneca) and Azdak (Steve Hofvendahl) reveal the fallacy of class divisions. Antaeus Theatre in Glendale is staging the modernist work from July 11 through the end of August.
(Jenny Graham)

Watching the first moments of Antaeus Theatre’s staging of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” is bit like being in the middle of a war. People are here (on stage), there (climbing an edifice) and everywhere (audience members casting wary glances at their seat mates).

It’s hard to tell who’s good, who’s bad and, in general, who’s who.

The experience sounds confusing, and it is, but ultimately can be forgiven because that’s exactly what’s going on. A civil war has broken out in a Caucasus town, and suddenly those in fine clothes and being doted on are sent fleeing — or worse.

Or, rather, it’s a parable set in a civil war-ravaged Georgian town, presented by Soviet villagers to their leader to protest collectivization. There’s also ample singing. It’s … confusing.

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With so many literally moving parts, Antaeus’ artistic leaders tapped director Stephanie Shroyer, a USC theater professor who has dedicated much of her career to exploring physical drama.

Brecht’s 1944 play, which centers on a peasant girl named Grusha Vachnadze (portrayed by Liza Seneca) who rescues a baby born to a wealthy family and left behind in the melee, opens Thursday at the Glendale-based theater.

Calling it a play within a play within a play, with the three layers unfolding to some extent concurrently, Shroyer said her job of world-building depends in large part on harnessing the creative vision of the viewer.

“The audience’s imagination will always surpass what we can imagine,” Shroyer said. “So it’s our responsibility is to stimulate that.”

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In that vein, the large ensemble cast becomes a stream where Grusha bathes baby Michael, wind that blows the hapless pair across a footbridge overlooking a perilous drop, and a back-up band and choir. Gabriela Bonet, who sings a significant part of the drama and plays several small roles, also serves as puppeteer for the flour-sack-style doll that represents baby Michael.

“You are aware you are watching a play,” Seneca said. “We don’t ask you to suspend your disbelief in the same way a naturalistic drama would. It’s theater at its fullest capacity.”

As Seneca and Shroyer pointed out, Brecht is well-known for his penchant as a playwright to treat the audience as objective observers rather than having heartstrings to tug.

“Chalk Circle” is often used as a textbook example of “epic theater,” a didactic drama movement pioneered by Brecht that aimed to keep viewers far enough from the story to make room for critical analysis, according to the theater’s program materials.

Yet, at the heart of “Chalk Circle,” beyond the broader themes of class struggle, is a family drama. When Michael’s real mother (played by Claudia Elmore) attempts to claim him after the civil war — primarily to inherit her deposed husband’s sizable estate — Grusha sheds tears at the thought of losing the adopted son she’s raised and risked her life for.

Peasant-turned-judge Azdak (portrayed by Steve Hofvendahl), a witty and wily force, stakes the child’s fate on an ancient test called the “chalk circle.”

There’s so much singing and dancing, it’s tempting to label the play a musical, albeit one with a mostly minor-key aura. A significant amount of the text in Brecht’s work is attributed to singers, but no musical accompaniment was written for it.

Forcing some cast members outside their wheelhouses, the actors and sound designer Jeff Gardner created an original score and sound effects for the local production, Shroyer said.

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There’s an accordion, violin, harmonium, Armenian duduk, Iranian Tombak and even a handful of homemade instruments that make up the aural texture.

“We were trying to capture the sound of that part of the world,” Seneca said, which is why they ditched a piano after a time and avoided major keys.

According to Shroyer, the production’s most heightened moments are when the actors, some of whom don’t consider themselves to be singers or dancers, are singing and dancing like pros.

“[This type of theater] is a bit like magic, or like a circus: You have to know how to do the form,” Shroyer said. ”If you don’t see the technique of something, it looks like it’s happening by magic. Of course, it’s not.”

(Some audience members might be jarred by the production’s use of more modern phrases — eg: “get it on” — but there’s a logical explanation: Antaeus relied mostly on a decade-old translation by Alistair Beaton. Shroyer, in conjunction with the cast, then swapped out Scotland-born Beaton’s across-the-pond colloquialisms for their American counterparts.)

“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” opens July 11 and runs through Aug. 26. For tickets and information, visit antaeus.org.

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