It was decades ago as a student in the drama department of my college that I first heard the name Bertolt Brecht. The great German playwright and his works have been in my theatrical lexicon ever since. He was amazingly productive, writing no less than fifty plays between 1918 and 1955, many of which are produced over and over again. I was fortunate enough to perform in The Three Penny Opera in three productions, twice as Mack the Knife, and, ultimately, in the mature role of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, the beggar king.
Brecht shattered the convention of the fourth wall and immersive dramatic realism. He wanted people to think and not get absorbed into emotional responses, something that we all love. How many times have I written that a particular moment or performance moved me? Brecht constantly reminds an audience that they are seeing a play by having characters speak directly to the audience, eschewing realistic sets and costumes, putting up signs, turning on the lights, and having characters burst into singing songs that are far removed from the romantic. Some may recall the dreamy, violent song, “Pirate Jenny,” or the bittersweet “Ballad of Polly Peachum,” made tuneful by Kurt Weill’s brilliant score.
After decades of knowing about The Caucasian Chalk Circle, I finally got a chance to experience it in Antaeus Theatre’s smashing new production. Breaking from the company’s tradition of partner casting, in which two or sometimes three casts take the stage in the same show, The Caucasian Chalk Circle boasts a vigorous, protean cast of sixteen players, all of whom take on multiple roles. The unfolding of the drama is complex, made more so by involving the audience in the lobby. With irresistible enthusiasm, the cast ushers the audience into the auditorium. Theatregoers get swept up in the panache of the cast, who sing and play a variety of instruments while making last minute preparations.
Set in the post-World War II Soviet Union, deep enough the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia so as to make Iran a viable enemy, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play-within-a-play. The core of the story concerns a newborn infant, the son of aristocratic parents. In advance of a military invasion, the baby’s mother (Claudia Elmore), the very picture of entitled snobbery, is so absorbed in her haste to see that her favorite furs and clothing gets packed, that she leaves her newborn behind. A servant girl, Grusha (Liza Seneca), has fallen in love and pledged herself to a soldier, Simon (Michael Khachanov), who is set to go off to war. She comes across the baby, and, though she doesn’t want the responsibility, takes charge of the infant and through many perils and twists and turns of fate, comes to regard the child as her own. As one might perceive at the beginning, the child’s biological mother returns towards the end to claim the boy, who is now a toddler. The case goes to court with a judge (Steve Hofvendahl, who has served throughout as kind of a stage manager à la Our Town), a chameleon who plays fast and loose. How does it go? Hmmm…I wonder.
Stephanie Shroyer directs The Caucasian Chalk Circle, marshaling the large cast with extraordinary verve and precision. The splendid ensemble includes John Apicella, Noel Arthur, Paul Baird, Gabriela Bonet, Turner Frankosky, Troy Guthrie, Connor Kelly-Eiding, Alex Knox, Mehrnaz Mohammadi, Madalina Nastase, Janellen Steininger, George Villas.
The creative team for The Caucasian Chalk Circle includes scenic designer Frederica Nascimento, costume designer Angela Calin, lighting designer Ken Booth, sound designer Jeff Gardner, props designer Erin Walley and dramaturg Ryan McRee. Taylor Anne Cullen manages the stage with aplomb.
Theatre lovers, this show is not to be missed. Antaeus Theatre Company continues to revive the great plays with consistent excellence.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle continues through August 26 at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 East Broadway in Glendale.