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A CurtainUp Review
The Caucasian Chalk Circle

The Pulse Ensemble Theatre's recent production of Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan (see link at end to the company and CurtainUp review) was one of the most exciting and enjoyable musicals I've seen this season. A revival by the Cocteau Repertory Company of Brecht's Mother Courage was similarly rewarding. Naturally, when I heard that the always adventurous La Mama e.t.c. was celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Brecht's birth with a brief run of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, I rushed to the East Village -- especially since it also afforded a chance to reacquaint myself with the work of Andrew Serban and composer Elizabeth Swados whose collaboration on The Good Woman some twenty years ago I did not see.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle was Brecht's last major work, written while he was an exile in the U.S. during World War II. Like Setzuan it's a parable; in this instance drawn from the Biblical tale of the Judgment of Solomon and the old Chinese play "The Circle of Chalk," which was successfully adapted by Klabund in Germany in the 1920s.

The story entails a compromise made to settle a land dispute between two collective farms in Soviet Georgia. To illustrate the ethics of such judgements, a folk singer is invited to re-tell the old tale of the circle of chalk. In one-half of the play's two-pronged plot, a maid named Grusha, in the wake of a revolution and at great personal sacrifice, brings up the child of a hard-hearted governor's wife who later returns to claim the child. Grusha's claim to the child is tested in an unusual trial, wherein she is ultimately recognized as the "real" mother. The latter part of the play (the second part of the plot) focuses on the story of Azdak, a crude, drunken scoundrel who, through a bizarre twist of fate, becomes the village judge. He settles the conflicting claims on the baby between Gruscha and the Governor's widow by putting the baby in a circle of chalk to see how each supposed mother would pull it out.

While full of song, broad comedy and highly dramatic moments, what we have is Brecht's use of emotional storytelling to set out the subtext of the effects of war on individual lives, personal responsibility, human choices in the face of profound difficulty and the paradoxes of life. It all has strong parallels in the current struggles between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the rival factions in modern Yugoslavia.

Like the other Brecht works we reviewed and liked, this anniversary collaboration between Serban and Swados is full of innovation, and with the sort of generous cast possible only in a non-profit setting. Swados' music is a good match with Brecht's text, though melody miles away from Michael Rice's opera-musical score for the most recent The Good Woman of Setzuan. This Chalk Circle is staged in two parts -- part one dramatizing the narrative that becomes the means for settling the land dispute trial in part two. This two-tiered nature of the plot is underscored by setting part one in the theater's small upstairs cafe and then moving the audience to another space a floor below. While I very much liked Jun Maeda's set of white beige bamboo and gauze, I found it difficult to appreciate it fully in the backless platform seats provided for the audience. Things didn't get much more comfortable in the second theater where you couldn't rest your by now aching back since it was hard to observe the trial without leaning forward against the rail separating audience and actors.

This caveat about the low comfort level you should expect, also applies to the acting since the cast consists mostly of students from Serban's Columbia University theater program. The actors are short on experience but long on the courage required to endure some of the more suffocatingly hot costumes (especially the woolen masks and heavy coats worn by the iron guards). Their courage also applies to the physical challenges met, especially in part two when a number of them must take literal leaps from the trial box to the lower level.

This much said, there were several thoroughly professional performances, with Mia Yoo particularly fine in her portrayal of Grusha in the first part. She stood out, even as a member of the chorus in the second part.

The translation of the current play by John Willett is also available in print at
Mother Courage and Her Children
The Good Woman of Setzuan

Directed by Andrei Serban and co-directed by Niki Wolcz
Music composed by Elizabeth Swados
Featuring eight members of the Great Jones Repertory in collaboration with graduate students of the Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theater Studies at Columbia University
Sets: Jun Maeda
Costumes: Vicki R. Davis
Lighting: Howard Thies
Musical direction by J. Michael Friedman; percussion by Bill Ruyle
Dramaturgy by Peter A. Campbell and Heidi Coleman
La MaMa E.T.C., 74A East Fourth Street (212/ 475-7710)
Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm
Reviewed 5/18/98 by Elyse Sommer

© Elyse Sommer, May 1998

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