The Caucasian Chalk Circle

An Epic Story in an Intimate Space

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Ben Lurye (in orchestra pit), Scott Ward Abernethy, Matthew Schleigh. Photo by Daniel Schwartz

“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” by Bertolt Brecht energetically springs from Constellation Theatre Company’s gritty charcoal stage in director Allison Arkell Stockman’s production of this rarely seen parable. For Constellation, presenting epic stories like this in the confines of a tiny black box theater is not just a challenge; it’s the point.

The play’s 14-member ensemble cast embodies more than 60 characters who lord over castles, work farms, attend church, do laundry in streams, traverse glaciers, take up arms, argue in court, and dance in the public square — all in a miniature 360-degree set with pathways that weave among the audience’s seats. Spectators are drawn into the play as if it were unfolding in their living room instead of on a stage, and what’s lost in illusion is gained in immediacy, intensity, and the power of imagination.

With storytelling built on declarative language and songs that expound on events, the play would feel much like children’s theater were it not for its dark undercurrents and bursts of violence. And its lessons are decidedly adult: Ownership is born of stewardship, and our own needs are met in caring for others.

The narrative begins in a Russian province, sometime after World War II, with a land dispute between the state and collective farmers. In the midst of the argument, the characters announce they will perform a play, set during a 13th century feudal insurrection. From there the story chronicles the struggles of Grusha, a servant girl who rescues Michael, the infant child of the slain governor and his selfish wife. Then it abruptly turns to the rise of Azdak, an eccentric judge who takes bribes from the wealthy and rules in favor of the poor and oppressed. At last these narratives converge in a court battle, using a chalk circle for a test to determine Michael’s custody.

A confusing, convoluted, and even exhausting plot, yes, and one made even more so by a parade of sinister, one-dimensional characters, painted in broad strokes and portrayed without subtlety. Teresa Spencer plays the governor’s self-absorbed and wicked wife with relish; if she had a mustache, she surely would be twisting it.

Scott Ward Abernethy as the sergeant is wildly menacing, and as the sniveling, cowardly Jessup, who feigns a fatal illness to dodge the draft, Brian Reisman is thoroughly obnoxious. Portraying Jessup’s conniving mother, Lisa Hodsoll couldn’t be more distasteful. Even the benevolent characters can be a bit overwhelming. As the singer who weaves together much of the tale and later morphs into Azdak the judge, Matthew Schleigh is larger than life and over the top.

But Yesenia Iglesias’ touching portrayal of Grusha the servant girl provides welcome relief from this hyperkinetic assembly. Her natural performance and sweet singing voice are a pleasure, and they’re nicely complemented by those of Drew Kopas as Simon, Grusha’s long lost love. It’s easy to root for this couple, as well as other more benign characters, like Ashley Ivey’s Lavrenti, Tamieka Chavis’ Shauva, Keith Irby’s governor, and an array of villagers and soldiers caught up in the machinations of powerful elites.

Under Stockman’s direction, Tony Thomas II has impressively choreographed the movements of a dozen performers or more simultaneously navigating the meandering set designed by A.J. Guban. Kelsey Hunt’s costumes creatively define the characters as the actors transform from one to the next in rapid succession, and puppet designer Matthew Aldwin McGee has produced two versions of the child Michael that almost steal the show.

The entire production is bold, inventive, and occasionally moving, despite Brecht’s heavy-handed script. After all, sometimes a whisper can be louder than a shout.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle will be performed at Source through May 13, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

 

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Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.