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: Reefer Madness (The Brown Paper Box Co.)

 

Hilarious musical romp through the wide world of weed

 

Reefer Madness - Brown Paper Box Co 003

   
The Brown Paper Box Co. presents
   
Reefer Madness
 
Book and Lyrics by Kevin Murphy
Music by Dan Studney
Directed by M. William Panek
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through October 24  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The 1938 propaganda film “Reefer Madness” sought to teach the ignorant American masses of the dangers of “marihuana”, including but not limited to grand theft auto, sexual deviance, and murder. Paranoid and misinformed to the extreme, the film’s absurd plot and hilarious depiction of drug users have made it a cult classic, and Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney’s musical spoof is a wonderfully over-the-top  expansion of the film’s best ideas, mainly the claims that marijuana turns people into sex-crazed baby-killing socialists.

Reefer Madness - Brown Paper Box Co_ 006Directed by M. William Panek, The Brown Paper Box Co.’s production of Reefer Madness is at its best during group numbers, when the cast fearlessly tackles the offensive subject matter with vocal gusto. During the smaller numbers, some of the actors struggle to adjust to the absence of the group, and the singing loses precision and clarity.

The musical revels in gratuitous sex and violence, and the exaggeration of these elements highlights the ridiculousness of the movie’s plot, the tragic tale of high school students Jimmy Harper (Tyler Davis) and Mary Lane (Anna Schutz). Under the false pretense of swing dance lessons, drug pusher Jack Stone (David Geinosky) invites Jimmy over to the Reefer Den, where his life will be changed forever.

When Jimmy takes a hit of marijuana for the first time, rather than experiencing lethargy and munchies, Jimmy life descends into a mess of unbridled orgies, Jesus hallucinations, and running over old men with Mary’s car. While Davis’ jonesing can get a little grating to watch at times, he and Schutz showcase impressive vocals, and the two actors have no problem transitioning from adorable sweetness to devilish insanity. Some of the high notes could have more power behind them, and there needs to be a better balance between the volume of the principals and the chorus behind them, but Jimmy and Mary’s tragic romance is a constant source of humor throughout the production.

Reefer Madness - Brown Paper Box Co 004 As the denizens of the Reefer Den, junkies Ralph (Michael Gardner), Sally (Jillian Kate Weingart), and Mae (Chelsea Paice) have some of the best moments in the show as stumble around the stage, humping and smoking whatever they can. Wiley is fantastically manic as Ralph, and is extra creepy as Sally’s baby in one disturbing interlude. Paice gets one of the best ballads of the show, and while she handles the lower register well, the big money notes are lacking in energy and support. Weingart has a similar problem, but she makes up for it with her powerful belting and fierce sexuality.

Reefer Madness is a musical that is not afraid to offend. Whether it is through explicit sexuality or graphic violence, the show pushes the boundaries of musical comedy, taking it to hilariously dark place. Brown Paper Box Co.’s production needs a little more polish to be truly memorable, but the actors tackle the material with dedication and courage. Despite the lows, this musical never comes down from its high.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

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REVIEW: Closure (Fringeelement Entertainment)

Anger management amongst friends

 

 Closure - Fringeelement Entertainment Chicago 2

    
Fringeelement Entertainment presents
  
Closure
   
Written by Jake Perry
Directed by Errol McClendon
at
The Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through September 26  |  tickets: $15  |  more info 

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Closure tells the story of three friends brought together after five years since the mysterious death of their mutual friend, Maria. Catherine, Dennis and Matt fall back into each other’s lives over a Labor Day weekend as they relive memories, both joyous and painful, and look for a way to deal with the death of Maria and find closure with this whole chapter of their lives.

Performed in the Viaduct Theater’s black box performance space, the set of Closure consists of a classic cabin scene designed by Joseph Budka. Walls are decked with wood paneling, a couch sits center stage and various chairs, photos and books take up the rest of the space. The set gives off a definitive country feel with its simple, yet cozy style. The lighting, designed by Claire Sangster, adds warmth to the space with delicate pink lights illuminating the space.

Closure - Fringeelement Entertainment Chicago The show opens on Catherine (Sarah Brooks) entering the cabin and looking around at old photos. She’s followed by Dennis (Austin Talley), who arrives a few minutes after she does. Talley is immediately a strong force on stage, booming with energy as he enters. Both his actions and his words are lively and animated, and it’s clear that’s he’s very comfortable with his character. Brooks, on the other hand, comes off stiff in the beginning, slightly unsure of her movements, but eventually opens up when she and Talley begin to converse. Talley and Brooks have a strange chemistry between them that never really clicks. It’s a challenge to imagine they were once good friends reuniting.

Dennis and Catherine reminisce and discuss Maria’s death. Catherine then finds out that she was lured to the cabin under false pretenses. Dennis – claiming that Matt, Catherine’s ex-boyfriend, invited them – convinced her to come. Catherine threatens to leave just as Matt (Jake Perry) arrives. Taken aback, Matt questions why his old friends are suddenly in his private cabin. Perry, who is also the show’s writer, has effortlessness with Matt. An autobiographical character it seems in many ways, Perry easily fits into Matt’s skin and fully brings him to life.

Talley and Perry have a better chemistry on stage. Playing off each other’s lines and body movements, these two men are fun to watch together; it’s not a leap to assume they are old buddies. Matt and Dennis fall back into a pattern shared in years before. Brooks also has better chemistry with Perry, and it’s more believable that they used to date.

Perry’s play is generally well-written. Throughout Closure, there are many insightful lines and monologues, causing not only the actors to consider the words being spoken but the audience as well. That being said, in Act I, there is a lot of unnecessary swearing written into the scenes to demonstrate anger. It’s clear by the acting that these characters have pent up anger at both Maria’s death and at each other. The overused expletives detract at times from the action taking place and become a nuisance. The swearing-makes-me-sound-pissed-off is tempered in Act II, and scenes run much smoother. Since this is a show based on anger and loss, a bit more comic relief would be welcome to help ease the audience after particularly dramatic scenes. Additionally, the character’s back-stories are minimally told, and more foundation is needed – Dennis’ story in particular. He is the loosest cannon, with a crazy, wild anger running through him, and I found myself wondering exactly where the roots of that anger come from.

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Whereas the first act drags a bit and at times feels forced, the second acts picks up speed as the actor’s settle more comfortably into their characters. Talley offers up terrific body language as he unleashes his rage on Matt and Catherine. In turn, Perry displays true, raw emotions, allowing the audience to see how damaged Matt is as a human being. Of the three, Catherine could be pushed further. Brooks is talented and surely has the ability to take her character further and really delve into the emotions that drive Catherine to behave and speak in the manner she does.

Closure’s ending offers some unexpected, yet very welcome twists. Although their lives are not sewn up as the production comes to a close, what occurs is quite appropriate and beautifully done.

   
  
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Closure plays at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave. Chicago, IL, Thursdays to Sundays through September 26. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased through the Viaduct’s Web site.


Production Personnel

Playwright: Jake Perry

Director: Errol McClendon
Light Design: Claire Sangster
Set Design: Joseph Budka

Featuring: Sarah Brook, Austin Talley and Jake Perry