Brecht wrote drama that typified street theater, with many intersecting stories, and relied on an audience that viewed the play without the benefit of a fourth wall. Born in Bavaria at the turn of the century, he was forced to flee Germany in 1933 and settled in California. During the war years he wrote some of his most influential plays including The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944) , while also trying to get work in the movie industry. An avowed Marxist, he was brought before the House Un-American activities committee in 1947 and and left to go to East Germany where he ran the state financed theater company until his death in 1956.
The Circle of Chalk by Li Xingdao is a Yuan dynasty (1259-1368) Chinese classical verse play, in four acts. It talks of a judgement to decide who is the rightful mother of a child. Solomon’s judgment precedes it. Many adaptations have followed, with the most famous one by Brecht set in Georgia at the time of a revolt.
The adaptation by Domenique Lozano is similarly set, and deliciously blended with music under the directorship of John Doyle. Doyle last directed Sweeney Todd for ACT and in the Chalk Circle many familiar elements from that play can be seen. The characters play many roles, use conventional and unconventional instruments to play music and tell the story in verse, song and dialog!
The essential conflict between nature and nurture is made more urgent in the Brecht play as the mother (played by a radiant Renee Augeson) could care less for the child. The reluctant foster mother Grushe (played wonderfully by Omoze Idehenry) slowly grows to love the child and makes many sacrifices to save it. Finally the revolution is at an end and the mother can only get her riches back if she has the heir with her, and thus is the Chalk Circle invoked by the bawdy though fair judge (play by Jack Willis in a fine fettle) and the decision made!
Brecht’s play is pertinent and relevant, as right and wrong can never be out of context with the times. The story is made up of set pieces, that tenuously connect to make a whole. The innocence of Grushe and her inherent compassionate nature leads her to a lot of trouble as she inadvertently picks up the royal baby and then ends up destroying her own chance at happiness to keep the baby alive. Thus is naivete rewarded in real life, with trouble! But then a corrupt judge delivers happiness back to Grushe telling us that being good will get a just reward in the end.
Behind the scenes look at the play!
Brecht’s foray into Hollywood ended bitterly after his attempt at a Broadway version of the Caucasian Chalk Circle with Luise Rainer fell through. Brecht wrote “The theater here is most cold-blooded merchandising of evening entertainment, a branch of the narcotics trade operated by gamblers!” AND about the Chalk Circle – was “partly conditioned by a revulsion against the commercialized dramaturgy of Broadway”, though of course he would have been happy to operate amongst the same drug pushers if the play had been successfully produced (reproduced from Michael Paller, ACT handbill).
This production was slick, with a bare minimum stage, and constant breaching of the fourth wall as the actors walked in and out of the audience and even talked to them throughout the play. The acting was superb with the ladies Idehenry and Augeson doing an excellent job. Jack Willis was amazing as the judge. The baby was represented by a pillow, took a bit of getting used to, but in the end as the mothers grabbed an “arm” each, I was thinking of it as a real baby! Yet another classic brought to life by ACT in a stirring production, highly recommended.