Powerful performances keep the ‘Circle’ rolling

“Caucasian Chalk Circle” by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht has a wonderfully alliterative name that rolls off the tongue (at least, in its translated English form). The production of the play up at the Whitney Theater this weekend, however, flows even more smoothly with remarkable elegance and style.

“CCC” narrates the misfortunate life of Grusha (Kate Berman ’11), a maid in the residence of Governor Georgi Abashvili (Jared Wigdor ’11). After an uprising that removes her master from power (and his head from his body), Grusha runs away with Michael (a.k.a. the “noble child”), the son of the governor, in order to protect him. The fate of Michael — who is initially presented as a small doll, then an invisible toddler and for a moment toward the end, a real-life Yale freshman (Calista Small ’14) — is the crux of the story. The young maid decides to raise Michael as her own, but a series of adversities find her the wife of an infirmed man (Alex Klein ’12, a current News editor).

A few years later, the old regime is restored. Michael’s mother Natella (Charlotte McCurdy ’13) tries to reclaim her son and sends soldiers to return him to her. While the audience anticipates the fate of the boy, it is introduced to the story of Azdak (Gabriel DeLeon ’13). After unwittingly housing the Grand Duke, the former ruler of the land, Azdak turns himself as a traitor. Due to a lucky turn of events, however, Azdak is named the new judge instead. Azdak is the judge who tries the custody battle between Natella and Grusha. Long story short, Azdak (a.k.a. King Solomon incarnate) presents the two women with a varied version of the “Judgement of Solomon.” The judge places Michael in the middle of a chalk circle and instructs the mother-wannabes that the one who pulls the boy out of the circle first will be the one to keep him.

The story is hauntingly narrated by a triumvirate of “singers” comprised of Small, McCurdy and Sarah Matthes ’13. They are a mash-up of funeral mourners and the five muses from Disney’s “Hercules” — omniprescent narrators who follow the journey of the hero. They try to sympathize Grusha, but they are a tad over the top. They sometimes tend to confuse the audience — we wonder whether they are angry, disgusted or condescending.

Berman, for whom the production is a senior project in theater studies, is surprisingly relatable as Grusha. There are moments when Berman looks at the Michael doll with glassy eyes, as if it were a helpless puppy. You genuinely feel sorry for her and the plight she must overcome, a feat that is difficult to achieve through an onstage performance.

DeLeon is both phenomenally hilarious and heart-wrenching. The clerk-turned-judge endearingly goes through fits of dread and terror while simultaneously chugging from a bottle of vodka. He also looks a bit crazy with a perpetual smile that at times is amusing and at others disturbing. Really disturbing.

The cast successfully employs the Whitney stage to set the scene, even when the set is almost bare. At one point, they coordinate their movements with a set of wooden planks that represent a rickety bridge. Before the beginning of the play and during intermission, words and pictures are projected on the back wall of the theater. One says “Explosion? Implosion?” Another says “Life.” Others feature Perez Hilton-esque scribbles with thick fluorescent lines, circles and other geometric symbols.

The costumes were not of a particular period, or style. Zachary Fuhrer ’11 (a former News editor) waltzes in wearing a fur vest. DeLeon, when out of his judicial robes, looks more like a drunk crusader than a judge, and a couple of the performers don black suits. But the earthly tones of the clothes, the dimmed lights, and the skillful acting make all of this look beautiful.

This production was co-created by the members of the theater ctudies class “The Actor and the Text” and runs through Saturday.

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