On Thursday, a play that is at once political satire, romantic comedy, musical and social critique will open at the Yale Repertory Theatre.
Written by Bertolt Brecht in 1944 and directed by resident director of the Rep and Yale School of Drama professor Liz Diamond, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” features a kitchen servant named Grusha who takes in the abandoned baby of a despotic ruler after a military coup. James Bundy DRA ’95, artistic director of the Rep and dean of the School of Drama, highlighted the diversity of the play’s themes as well as the timelessness of the topics it explores.
“This is one of the most important and enduring plays of the 20th century, and it is about war and love and suffering and greed and justice,” Bundy wrote in an email. “These subjects never go out of style, and the bold theatricality in which Brecht, and this company, serve them up are a feast for the eyes and ears.”
Set in the fictional land of Grusinia, the play follows the protagonist Grusha as she travels across mountains and villages in an attempt to protect the royal child, encountering a bizarre cast of characters along the way. In line with Brecht’s epic theater style, the second half of the play shifts to a different narrative that centers on a common-worker-turned-judge that is appointed to hear cases by the military in the midst of revolution.
In addition to depicting many different genres of theater, the production also includes songs that serve a narrative role and features various traditional and nontraditional instruments. According to Diamond, the musical interludes of the play allow moments of commentary on the action of the play. Shaunette Wilson DRA ’16, who plays the protagonist of Grusha, agreed that the songs that her character sings are important for the play’s storyline, adding that the music is part of what makes the genre of the play multifaceted.
“This is a bit of a dark-comedy with music. Perhaps a social-drama? Political-drama? With music? I really enjoy playing all the parts. Grusha has a lot depth yet she appears quite simply,” Wilson wrote in an email.
Actors and members of the production team interviewed agreed that the play’s epic depiction of various theatrical styles makes it both a challenging work to stage and an engaging production for its audiences.
According to Jonathan Majors DRA ’16 — who plays Simon, Grusha’s fiancé who leaves Grusha to fight in a war — the play’s ability to depict a genre that encompasses many others is what makes the play a piece of epic theater. Majors added that the play could appeal to a large audience for that reason.
Diamond said that while the Rep had planned to put on the play for the past several years, recent events — such as the annexation of Crimea and the war in Syria — were part of the motivation behind including the play in the current Rep season. Diamond added that the play also features certain images that resonate with recent events in the United States, pointing in particular to the discrepancy between law and justice as revealed in the events of Ferguson last year.
“While Grusinia may be a fictional land, it’s also in some ways right here,” said Diamond.
While the text of the play includes references to real places such as Georgia and Azerbaijan, there is no exact modern-day location in which the play is set. Diamond explained that this ambiguity allows the production to incorporate an “amalgam of failed states, tyrannical oligarchs and their trophy wives, and refugees.”
Diamond and Majors both said “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” and its unique genre is unlike any recent production at the Rep, but one that is consistent with the Rep’s mission of being a workshop for innovative theater.
Majors agreed that the sheer size of the production makes it a distinct part of the Rep’s season, adding that the production’s creativeness accomplishes the goals that the mission statement of the Rep sets out.
“The Yale Rep is very much a place of invention and exploration and daring,” Majors said. “I think this play, and this production, represent all of those things to the n–th degree.”
Bundy agreed that the show is a unique member of the Rep’s season, adding that the piece of epic theater differs from every other play being produced this year in Connecticut.
Performances of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” will run through April 11.