To stage a play by Bertolt Brecht, the renowned modern dramatist writing of the post-World War I period, is tricky business. Brecht’s plays are convoluted and often frantic, and they present a complicated feat in staging and directing. The Dramat’s performance this week of Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” directed by Jay Scheib, is a masterful integration of a difficult work.
The plot of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” is a multi-leveled one. The first scenes of the play are of post-World War I Europe; but it is within this setting that we get a fictional tale, intermittently narrated for us by two historical revolutionary figures: Rosa Luxemburg (Lyric Benson ’02) and Karl Leibknecht (Nell Rutledge-Leverenz ’03). This is the story of a revolution in the fantasy land of Grussinia, in which soldiers kill the noble governor (Raphael Soifer ’04) and force his wife (Julia Kots ’01) to flee. She, in her haste and self-obsession, leaves behind her infant son and heir to the governorship.
Grusha (Natalia Payne ’03), a servant of the estate, picks up the child and flees with him to the countryside where, over the next three years, she raises him as her own. In the last scene in Grussinia, the late governor’s wife returns, three years later, to claim her son; but in a trial heavily reminiscent of the Biblical trial by King Solomon, custody of the child is awarded to Grusha.
Of course, the plot line here is fairly banal, but Brecht’s conception of drama was not based on plot, and the importance of this play does not lie in its narrow plot line. Much of Brecht’s influence in his time lay in his attack on the traditional aesthetics of dramatic performance, which, claimed the playwright, merely mimic life in an uninspired, hollow way. His plays, on the other hand, represented a new dramatic aesthetic; they were a new way of commenting on the real world without literally mirroring it.
Accordingly, the effect of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” lies in its bizarre staging. The play is frantic, almost hysterical in tone; actors run around the stage, both in random motions and in fluidly choreographed groups. They perform acrobatics at bizarre moments, and the main feeling we take away from the play comes from the staging’s dynamism. It seems as though the main point of the play lies not in any rigid story line but in the flux, the chaos that we watch on stage, under which run strong currents of sexuality and destruction. If the world of the play is chaotic and fluid, if its characters are, for the most part, destructive, rash, uncontrolled creatures, then there is some order and goodness to this world. This goodness lies in Grusha, who risks her own well-being to protect a child not her own. In recognition of her goodness, the judge in the final trial, Azdak (Nate Schenkkan ’02), who, though a wild and raging character himself, in the end does the right thing. If the chaos of this fictional world is meant to resonate strongly with the portrayal of the post-World War I world of the first scenes and with our conception of the real world following World War I, then there is order and goodness beneath the destruction of the real world too.
Scheib pulls off this difficult feat of directing masterfully. In this fragmented, convoluted play, his staging is well-choreographed and smooth, and in this way, the chaos that we observe takes on a fluid kind of aesthetic all its own. The acting performances, too, are all impressive; all the characters are appropriately loud, frantic and over-the-top, in accordance with Brecht’s sense of over-dramatization. Kots is wonderful as the governor’s wife; she is hysterical, petty and wildly self-absorbed, and is almost likeable in her ridiculousness. Schenkkan as Azdak is also frantic to the point of absurdity. Grusha is one of the show’s only even characters, a role that Payne pulls off gracefully; she is steady but not boring. And, in the smaller role of narrator Rosa Luxemburg, Benson is also notable — amid the heightened feel of the scenes she narrates, Benson’s quietly seductive tone stands out as memorably ironic.
This, though, is not an easy play to watch, for Brecht’s play is a challenge, not only for its director and actors, but also for its viewers.
From its end, the Dramat has risen to the occasion admirably.
Caucasian Chalk Circle
Yale Repertory Theater
Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.
Tickets: 432-1212 or firstname.lastname@example.org $6 students, $10 adults.