The Caucasian Chalk Circle
by Bertolt Brecht
Theatre St. Thomas
For people who like their theatre straight, who think if it's going to be live and in front of us it shouldn't try to be television or movies, but should acknowledge that it's a decorated and elaborated form of social storytelling, there are certain playwrights that are litmus tests -- playwrights whose work insists, as Samuel Johnson put it, that "the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players." Shakespeare, of course, is one -- that's who Johnson was talking about, after all -- and Bertolt Brecht is another. Whatever you think of his politics or his dramatic theories, his plays insist on pressing directly on the paradox of theatre: how can I care about these people or these events if I don't believe they exist? If I'm never fooled for an instant into forgetting that someone's telling me this story, with the intention that I think about it in a certain way -- that the teller has an axe to grind -- how is it that I could ever be brought to have tears in my eyes as lovers are torn asunder or families reunited?
Of course, all art faces that paradox -- just as it's not clear how we can feel so much pity for Lady Macbeth as she discovers that what's done cannot be undone (after all, it's just an actress speaking iambic pentameter lines on a stage), so our engagement with any fictional character doesn't seem to make much sense.
And yet Brecht pushes us further (so does Shakespeare, and so do other playwrights, of course). They keep reminding us that it's not real. At the crucial junctures they pull out the poetic stops, or dig the audience in the elbow with an aside or an improbability, or find some other way to remind us it's a story (I didn't say, and they wouldn't either, "just" a story). So, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht not only puts his play within a play, but also installs a narrator right in the middle of things to keep yanking us back out of any temptation to lose ourselves in Grusha's flight or Azdak's plight.
Anyone putting the play on has to find the balance point between engaging the audience in feeling for the characters, and reminding the audience that the characters are just abstractions. Brecht helps by suggesting the play should be performed in masks, and by infusing music and song throughout his script. And Ilkay Silk, in creating the current version of the play at St. Thomas, has taken him at his word, and gives us a masked version that is saturated in music. With the help of local artists George Fry, mask-maker extraordinaire, and Michael Doherty, a profoundly gifted local musician, the Chalk Circle put on by Theatre St. Thomas is a remarkable and engaging experience.
The music, performed by Doherty, along with sensitive and responsive piano and clarinet by Jane Bowden and Doug Vipond, shapes and colours the action, sets our responses, and occasionally comes to the fore, as the remarkable "chorus" of Maureen Batt and Sarah Jeffries sings -- with impeccable and effective musicality -- Doherty's original music to tell us, for instance, "what the girl thinks but doesn't say" as she faces the apparently corrupt judge, Azdak. The musicians play from under and behind a platform from which the narrator and the chorus observe and control the action, and the timing and sensitivity of the music is therefore seen, and felt, as part of the story-telling, and subtly shapes our responses to it.
The masks, too, are part of the fundamental texture of the experience. The half-masks, covering the top of the face, convert all the characters but the three main figures -- Simon, Grusha, and Azdak -- into caricatures, or symbols. Grusha's poor cowardly brother, for instance, dragooned by his fundamental decency, and against his wife's wishes, into harboring the fugitive girl and the baby she's taken on, has a mask with permanent worry lines etched into the forehead. Whatever he says, we know how to read him. One remarkable effect of doing the play in masks is that when the head of Abashvili is held up on a pike, it's just as real as the characters in the play, and thus its empty eyes are far more shocking than the usual mockup of a head in, say, Macbeth or this play.
The set and overall concept of the production is equally well thought out. The main set is simply three stacks of building scaffolding, with a level playing space extending across them about twelve feet up, and an apron spilling out from the front of the scaffolding and ending at the musicians' and narrator's platform. The audience is split on either side of the acting area, again reminding us -- even more radically than Shakespeare's thrust stage -- that this is theatre. The lighting design, by Chris Saad, is subtle and effective (the way the chalk circle, laboriously drawn by Azkak's assistant and oppressor, Shauva, comes alive as he finishes it is particularly elegant).
All that said, there are difficulties with the production. One is almost unavoidable in a setting like this and a script like this, done with undergraduate actors: the language tends to get lost, especially when the actors are facing away from you. Filling the Black Box without screaming is a serious challenge, and while some of the actors meet it all the time (old pros like Darren Mesheau, and Juliette Bosse, for instance, or Paul Lenarczyk as the cowardly brother, or Clark Colwell as the Storyteller, looming over the action and directing our attention), and most of them meet it some of the time, it's still a difficulty.
And it's a particular difficulty with this play, because, although it isn't often seen as a particularly language-rich play (it's always translated, and not by Shakespeare), the tone and the subtle, complex and ironic judgments about characters created by the that language is central to what Brecht wants us to come to understand about human beings and their relationships. If we are to feel the fragile yet enduring relationship between Grusha and Simon, for instance, we have to get every nuance of the way they address each other mock-formally as "the young lady" and "the soldier", or swap sayings: "They found better fish than me, so they didn't eat me, said the haddock." "Courage, said the kitchen boy. Luck, said the hero." If we are to understand just how outrageous Azkak's opinion are, we need to hear every syllable of his complex moralizing: "Don't slobber like a Grand Duke or a sow. I can't stand it. It's well-born stinkers we've got to put up with as God made them." And when we miss a chance to savor the complexities, because the speeches are lost in the reaches of the far wall, the intensity of our engagement slackens.
Perhaps equally important for me may be the lack of violence, or threat of violence, in the production. We don't feel that Grusha's being pursued for her life by the "Ironshirts"; indeed, the Ironshirts don't seem very threatening at all. When the Ironshirts confront her with innuendo -- "Where are you coming from? When are you coming? Are you entertaining illegal relations with the enemy? Where is he hiding? What sort of movements is he making in your rear?" -- he does so, in this production, from ten feet away, purely verbally: there's no sense of physical threat. This odd lack of physicality runs so thoroughly through the production that I'm sure it was a deliberate choice -- it's echoed, for instance, in the music, in which Doherty uses silence, spare, hesitant melodies, and a kind of Eastern European ominous expectancy to create an atmosphere of contemplative tension.
But, still, when there are opportunities to make us feel physical threat and violence, Silk often chooses to place the characters at some distance from each other and let the words do the work. I respect the choice, but I often wanted to have more sense of that physicality, to play off against the wonderful, thoughtful staging of the quieter moments -- as, for instance, Terry McKinnon as a vulnerable, sensible, and indomitable Grusha "adopts" the baby by the side of a mountain stream. In order for us to feel those moments of stolen peace and sanity in the midst of revolution, I want to feel the revolution a bit more. Often, it seemed to me, when characters exited from violent confrontations or in pursuit or flight, they seemed simply to turn and walk off. Because the Ironshirts didn't seem particularly threatening, their pursuit of Grusha failed to create the kind of frenetic panic that Brecht's script might allow for. When Azdak saves the Grand Duke from the Ironshirts, the Duke simply walks behind the scaffolding to hide; there's no sense of panic on his part or indecision on Azdak's.
As so often, in a Theatre St. Thomas production, the real star of the show is the ensemble work, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle is no exception. It's possible to pick out particularly strong performances, but you're always aware that they depend for that strength on what's going on around them, on the way our attention is deliberately and consciously focused, now over here, now up there, by everyone involved acting in concert. I'm sure Brecht would have liked this production, and I suspect he might even disagree with my desire to have seen more exciting disorder and violence around his central love story. After all, his audience didn't need to be shown what a revolution was like.
And when does the CD of the original cast recording of that wonderful music come out?