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: Beautiful City (Theatre Mir)

Solid cast punctuates this urban fairytale

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Theatre Mir presents

Beautiful City

 

Written by George F. Walker
Directed by
Rob Chambers
At Storefront Theatre, 66 E. Randolph,
thru April 3rd
(more info)

By Katy Walsh

“Make no little plans” is a phrase coined by Chicago’s infamous urban planner, Daniel Burnham. In Theatre Mir’s play Beautiful City, lead character Tony Raft embraces this philosophy despite opposition from his architect, a witch and the mob.  Performed at the Storefront Theatre in conjunction with DCA Theatre and the Beautiful_City10Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Beautiful City is the story of each person’s quest to get what they want by overcoming ‘the simple ugly truth.’ Tony wants a grandiose shopping mall. His mobster mama wants more money. His architect wants to be healed. The witch wants urban renewal and the freedom to dig through garbage. Beautiful City interconnects three families in an urban fairy tale of betrayal, greed and redemption.

The entire cast has been solidly constructed. Here are some of the pillar performances: Yosh Hayashi (Tony Raft) impresses with his vigorous audacity over a shopping mall obsession. Splendidly rotten in Steep Theatre’s Hollowlands, Hayashi exploits the humor in his every diabolical depiction. It’s Gilbert Gottfried as Hannibal Lector. Walking up and down stairs in 3 inch heels, Rachel Slavick (Mary Raft) is tough. Except for a wonderful salad thrashing scene, Slavick plays it stone faced cold. Mira Vasiljevic (Gina Mae Sabatini) contorts her look with an ongoing skunk face in her portrayal of the witch. Physically and vocally, Vasiljevic showcases her character as a bizarre source of life’s truth. She’s hilarious! C. Sean Piereman (Paul Gallagher) is the one to be rescued in this modern day fable. In the first few scenes, Piereman’s pain is so uncomfortably real, one feels the need to call 911. Other high energy moments of dramedy are Jeremy Kahn (Stevie Moore) as a fast-talking punk, Kristen Secrist (Jane Sabatini) as a wacky hospital volunteer, Kurt Brocker (Rolly Moore) as a desperate thug and Megan Kohl (Dian Black) as the confident gum -chewing cop. It is stellar acting wrapped up in Whitney McBride’s character-perfected costumes.

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Director Rob Chambers maximizes the physical space and the script to establish the framework of this adult fairy tale. Chambers is working from the foundation laid by playwright George F. Walker. Walker illustrates the issues of gentrification with an entertaining myth of mobsters verses witches. The parts are there for a solid built fortress. To nail it, Walker needs to sand it down for refinement. Some of the scenes are longer than necessary. In particular, a pivotal end scene is overly explanatory. This technique feels Hollywood-esque in “dumbing it down for the mainstream.” There are also some transitional moments of clunkiness, like, the scene where Paul is in the witch’s store. When did he decide to seek her out? It’s like realizing you are already in a room when you thought you were walking down a corridor. Walker’s blueprint needs a hallway connecting smaller rooms to more effectively imagine city dwelling. Nonetheless, even without a script renovation, Mir Theatre’s Beautiful City is an entertaining lesson of urban renewal for the entire community.

Making his own contribution to our city landscape, Frank Lloyd Wright says, “eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful city left in the world.” Right with you, Frank!

Rating: ★★★

 

Post-show Discussions

  • Thursday, March 11, with cast and director Rob Chambers
  • Saturday, March 20, with Dr. Michael Bennett, executive director of DePaul University’s Egan Urban Center
  • Friday, March 26, with Al Gini, contributor at WBEZ Chicago Public Radio and professor of philosophy and business ethics at Loyola University, Chicago

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