Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Theatre Mir)

  
  

Brecht’s musical play restored is vital and thrilling

  
  

Kristen Secrist and Mira Vasiljevic in Theatre Mir's 'The Caucasion Chalk Circle'. Photo credit: Adam Orton.

  
Theatre Mir presents
  
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
  
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Alistair Beaton
Music by Chance Bone
Directed by Jonathan Berry
at
The Viaduct, 3111 N. Western (map)
through April 3  |  tickets: $10-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

After a buildup of Western airpower in the Mediterranean this week, the French foreign minister was asked if the military operation was meant to remove Muammar el-Qaddafi from power: “No. The plan is to help Libyans choose their future.” It is in this strikingly resonant world backdrop that Theatre Mir has staged their fourth production, Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 musical play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The production is the opening to the “Full Circle Festival” in collaboration with The State Theatre.

Theatre Mir does not do easy plays. Chalk Circle is intellectual, philosophical and incredibly relevant in terms of current events in places such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. It is the type of play a UN Ambassador might want to take in during his free time. All the while, director Jonathan Berry and Theatre Mir have created a production that is equally entertaining and human. Alistair Beaton’s recent contemporary translation also deserves much of the credit.

Kristen Secrist and Jeremy Kahn in Theatre Mir's 'Caucasian Chalk Circle' by Bertolt Brecht. Photo by Adam Orton.One notable attribute of this translation is Beaton’s inclusion of the “play-within-a-play” prologue, wherein a diplomatic official (crafted with great care and humor by Stephen Loch) must convince a war-torn town and their farmers that a collectivist economic and social outlook is necessary for survival. However, the official must first watch a play. To this he pleads, after being informed that it will last two and a half hours, “Couldn’t you make it any shorter?” Simply put, it probably could be, but in the end you do not regret the time you’ve spent.

The play revolves around the idea that when you take down a totalitarian government, and the people are left to decide their future, there is often a circular occurrence where the oppressed become the oppressor. It also challenges what it means to be “good” in such conflicts. We are taken through the tale by the singing narrator, played by the talented guitarist and actor, Zeke Sulkes. Sulkes played a similar function in The Hypocrites’ Pirates of Penzance (our review ★★★½) earlier this year, which has some conceptual parallels to this production with the cast picking up and playing various instruments throughout the play. This element also achieves Brecht’s famed “alienation” effect by always reminding the audience that these are actors in a play. Chance Bone’s folk rock scoring adds a driving cultural liveliness to the evening.

After the prologue, we begin the play in a Caucasian town called Grusinia amidst an emerging civil war. The governor (played by Yosh Hayashi, and ironically mocked by Hayashi later when he takes on his more pivotal role). The governor is beheaded and his widow (Mira Vasiljevic) flees into exile leaving behind her infant child, Michael. A servant girl, Grusha (Kristen Secrist), discovers the child and takes him away from the town to safety. She first has pledged her love and allegiance to a departing soldier, Simon (Jeremy Kahn). Throughout her travels she battles, begs and borrows to protect the child and quickly develops a maternal attachment. She eventually weds a dying man (a crass Sean Bolger) to provide for the child, which makes things complicated upon Simon’s return. Secrist plays Grusha with utmost passion, ambition and love. She leaves nothing on the table with this role and carries the first half of the play.

We learn with Simon’s return that war has ended. Order has seemingly returned, and so has the governor’s wife looking for her child. However, the second half of this play is dominated by one of Brecht’s most fascinating characters, Azdak. He is the drunken scholar turned judge who redefines the definition of what it means to be “good.” Yosh Hayashi is thrilling as Azdak. He is constantly versatile and unpredictable. His performance truly showcases his talents, proving to be one of the most captivating actors working in this city. The play boils down to the chalk circle in which the young Michael (now a toddler created effectively in puppet form by designer Megan Hovany) must stand in the middle of the circle while Grusha and the biological mother compete in a tug of war with the child. The outcome is perfect and creates wonderful philosophical debate during after-show drinks.

This particular space at The Viaduct poses many challenges for any set designer or director. However, scenic designer Chelsea Warren creates a found material stylistic set. It is functional and avoids realism, playing well with Brecht’s intent. Melanie Berner’s costumes are an excellent guide to help the audience keep track of which social class the ensemble is playing at any given time. Meanwhile, Bone’s underscoring is as effective as his melodies. A certain use of a slide whistle here, or a saxophone bellow there, add humor and energy to lines.

Overall, Berry makes excellent use of his cast through employing them in various roles as musicians, dancers, actors and stagehands. His staging provides for fascinating movement, including one moment when Grusha must cross a treacherous bridge with the child to flee her pursuers. The ingenious and simple technical method of achieving this moment culminates in one of the most immediate and suspenseful moments of the evening.

While Chalk Circle incorporates all of the entertainment and heart of a Broadway musical, it also leaves you with bleak unanswered questions. One of Brecht’s lines that echoed with me this morning as I read an article on rebuilding Egypt was, “War is over. Fear the peace.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Poster for 'The Caucasion Chalk Circle' by Bertolt Brecht, presented by Chicago's Theatre Mir.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle continues at The Viaduct through April 3rd, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 10 min. intermission. Tickets are $25 (regular price), $20 (seniors), $15 (students) and $10 (industry). For more info and reservations call (773) 296-6024 or visit: www.theatremir.com.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is part of the “Full Circle Festival” in collaboration with The State to provide audiences with two uniquely different versions of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The State Theatre will close the festival with The Voodoo Chalk Circle, a retelling of Brecht’s story adapted by Chelsea Marcantel, April 8-May 1. This adaptation will be set amidst a hurricane strike in New Orleans. Festival tickets to both performances are $30.

All photos by Adam Orton

     
     

Review: Terre Haute (Black Elephant Theatre)

  
  

Two extremes create their own middle

  
  

Cole Simon as 'Harrison' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

  
Black Elephant Theatre presents
  
Terre Haute
  
Written by Edmund White
Directed by Michael Rashid
at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through April 10  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

What if brilliant gadfly Gore Vidal (here called “James”) and mass murdering domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh (“Harrison”) had actually met, instead of simply corresponding with each as happened? The very speculative results are on harsh display for 90 minutes, the setting a basically bare stage that suggests the prison contact area where they might have met. It’s neutral ground between opposites that attract in this Chicago premiere of a very telling, if imaginary, encounter between American poles.

Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.71 and suffering from osteosclerosis as he hobbles on a cane with characteristic dignity, Vidal, radical politico and openly, if not happily, gay (a richly nuanced Danne W. Taylor), is drawn to his seeming nemesis (despite being repelled by all of Indiana).

(It’s much as Truman Capote was to the multiple murderer Perry Smith or straight Norman Mailer was to killer Gary Gilmore. All three great writers seemed to shadow the executions of their subjects, though, unlike vultures, their interest was in how they faced the end, not the aftermath.)

28, unrepentant, and possibly a virgin, Cole Simon’s macho McVeigh is attractive and forbidding enough to make daredevil Vidal want to kiss him or at least touch his prison-toned chest. (So it goes at least in this fictionalized treatment by Edmund White.) Showing his usual perverse sympathy with the devil, Vidal understands that the sociopathic white supremacist/survivalist was in fact avenging an equally gratuitous slaughter of scores of supposedly innocent citizens at Ruby Ridge and Waco (exactly three years before McVeigh’s 1995 bombing).

They both find common ground in their distrust of the government and the elites who own it. Vidal fears that the American republic is endangered by the American empire and the “constant warfare” by which the populace is distracted from being raped by the rich. McVeigh dreads a “New World Order” in which the U.N. will invade America and give it up to its Jewish “owners” while enslaving the “true” citizens, deprived of guns with which to fight back. For him no sacrifice is too great to thwart the coup, including losing his life to a lethal injection. He calls it a “state-assisted suicide.”

But, as Vidal tapes McVeigh’s halting confessional, it’s clear what really unites them—what Vidal calls “the American loneliness.” Though Vidal argues that life is sacred (even if he’s an unbeliever) and McVeigh dismisses the 19 children his 7,000 fertilizer bomb killed as “collateral damage,” they both agree on the alienation they feel from and for their native land. Both are veterans who distrust the U.S. military and the constant surveillance of civilian authorities. Both are nearing death: Vidal loves life enough to fear it but, like a true jihadist, McVeigh has already crossed to the dark side: The execution will only finish the journey. Most interestingly, McVeigh reminds Vidal of his first lover Bud, who was equally eager to find easy answers and immediate gratification.

     
Cole Simon as 'Harrison' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White. Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.
Danne W. Taylor as James Brevoort and Cole Simon as Harrison in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.  Danne W. Taylor as 'James Brevoort' in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

Director Michael Rashid does a fine job of using body language and the caged pacing of inmate and interviewer to reveal the intricate psychodynamics that connect and repel them. (They have a ferocious donnybrook that oddly resembles a lover’s quarrel.) When Gore finally mentions the broken bodies of the many victims, McVeigh almost sees them for the first time, far more real than any abstraction of anti-government revenge could ever be.

It’s not exactly a meeting of minds. McVeigh is too much the militia-minded thug of action to be any more than a nightmare clad in flesh. But, despite its highly imaginative pretend-encounter, Terre Haute goes far to explaining how much American extremes—Vidal’s kneejerk cynicism about American ideals and McVeigh’s lethal paranoia and self-pity—seem to deserve each other. Most of us are happy enough to live in between.

     
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Danne W. Taylor as James Brevoort and Cole Simon as Harrison in Black Elephant Theatre's 'Terre Haute' by Edmund White.

Terre Haute runs through April 10th, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and are available online or by calling 800-982-2787. Terre Haute runs 80-minute with no intermission.

     
     

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