Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

As a theatre reviewer, I like plays that stay with me long after the curtain is drawn, and thus my heart belongs to those off Broadway. There’s no glitz but there’s an edge, and there are no big budgets, but there’s infinite creativity. One such show is the latest production by the Pipeline Theater Company – The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a long rich ethnic story that had more unexpected twists and turns than a modern thriller. Written by German playwright and anti-war activist Bertolt Brecht and directed by Adjunct Professor at the Tisch School of Arts, Anya Saffir, the play kept me guessing, among other things, about its name. Really, why the chalk circle?

The play opens with a dispute between two Soviet communes, the Galinsk goat farm and the Rosa Luxemburg collective, over who is to own a piece of land after the end of the Nazi occupation. But then a group of actors and singers arrive, and, like the famous Arabic classic, A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, in which one fable tells another, the play drops us into medieval Gruzinia (Georgia), in the midst of a mutiny and armed conflict. Prince Kazbeki, backed by the Ironshirts, murders the governor, Georgi Abashvili, whose fleeing wife Natella is more concerned with picking out her wardrobe than packing her baby sonand so little Michael gets left behind. Grusha, a young maid, who had just gotten engaged to Simon, the soldier, finds the baby and runs away with him, saving the boy from the Ironshirts, as her fiancé leaves to fight the war.

The infant puts Grusha at odds with society: she cannot reveal Michael's identity because the Ironshirts are after him. "He's mine," she yells as she collapses into her brother's arms exhausted and sick from the winter cold after crossing the mountains. The brother's wife is not sympathetican unwed mother is an embarrassment, not to mention two extra mouths to feed. Yielding to the pressure, Grusha agrees to marry a dying peasant to become a respectable widow - but the man miraculously recovers after the wedding. Thus, Grusha finds herself married with child and without a clue as to how she'd ever explain this to Simon who, hopefully, will come back from the war. But life has another ugly surprise for her: Natella returns to claim her sonher key to the estate. Can the dispute be settled with a chalk circle? Yes, if you place the child in the middle and let the arguing women pull him apart… if they have the heart.

Every actor in this energetic, well-directed cast plays at least three different roles, changing hats, dresses, and historical times with remarkable ease and flair. The usage of stage sets is impressive: simple yet sufficient structures quickly transform the stage from a mansion to a peasant shack and from a court into a mountain road. Dramatically orchestrated and touching is the scene in which fleeing Grusha crosses a broken bridge over a two-thousand-foot-deep abyss, disregarding a group of locals who warn her the old wood won't hold her weight. Weaved naturally into the plot, the songs and music by Cormac Bluestone give it that special ethnic feel as if we had been invited to a traditional Gruzinian wedding where the old fashioned entertainers amuse the guests with their tales.

Compliments to director Anya Saffir, this drama never drops its intensity yet it makes us laugh quite a few timesat people's stupidity, greed, or self-centeredness. "[In this play, Brecht] invites us to take a closer look at those small choices we make in life," Saffir says in her interview, which you can watch below, "and how those choices impact the life of others." Like a great old book rediscovered in a grandmother's trunk, this production is a delicious revival of an almost forgotten classic, and a definite treat. If you are in New York, don't miss your chance to see it! For tickets, go to SmartTix


  1. I saw this play many years ago in a theater in East Germany. I'd forgotten most of the story except for the two women pulling on the child. I think that part of the story comes from the Biblical tale about King Solomon judging a case where two women each claimed to be the mother of one child. I always thought it was interesting that a Marxist like Brecht would base a play on a Biblical story.

  2. That’s what I thought – but according to Wikipedia, Brecht based it on a Chinese story with similar circumstances but with a different ending. In the Biblical story, the adopted mother lets go of the child – and wins. In the Chinese story, the biological mother lets go – and wins. Brecht made the change from the Chinese story by making the ending to be what it is today (the adopted mom wins) e.g. the same as it is in the Biblical story. Another one of my favorite “how the culture travels” moments.

  3. Interesting about the Chinese background. I had no idea. These stories do travel well.