Thursday’s performance of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” at the Yale Rep’s University Theater had an inauspicious start — a “slight technical difficulty” delayed the start of the performance by just over twenty minutes. But in due time, a large white circle appeared, as if painted with a brush, on the black curtain concealing the stage. It appeared portentous, like the red-tailed comet that appears over the city of Nukha early in the first act. The comet spells immediate doom for the governing regime and sets the war-torn scene for the ensuing action. Soon after its appearance, an explosion rocks the stage, tearing a jagged red hole in the mottled black panels that serve as the production’s flexible backdrop. During the first act, the rest of the backdrop gradually disintegrates as Grusha, our heroine, makes her dangerous journey across Grusinia — having rescued, in the chaos of Nukha’s overthrow, the infant son of the assassinated governor, who now has a price on his head.
Brecht’s play, begun in 1944, is overtly political and unquestionably reflects its historical moment. The playwright and his family fled from the Nazi regime as it came to power, eventually making their way to the United States and ultimately back to Germany after the end of World War II. The Yale Rep has chosen to set its production in an “imaginary contemporary country,” which means the Ironshirts are a SWAT team with machine guns, and the governor is attended by a besuited, earpieced Secret Service type who carries an iPhone with a tinny ring. But the anachronism, if it’s worthwhile to call it that, is relatively undefined and inoffensive. The governor himself wears a generic fascist khaki-green with red stripes. In one of the most arresting visual moments in the play, three characters piled with luggage trek across a foggy stage (standing in for a glacier) draped in vaguely traditional Eurasian traveling dress.
The backbone of the Rep production is its excellent ensemble: the actors bring unfaltering energy and gestural precision to their scenes. Particular standouts were Julyana Soelistyo, an experienced actress of stage and screen, and Jesse J. Perez, perfectly farcical as the Fat Prince. Special recognition goes to Chivas Michael as Shauva, who, in the play’s climatic scene, drew a perfect freehand circle in white chalk on the stage. (This inspired approving murmurs from the two men sitting in front of me.)
Grusha (Shaunette Renée Wilson) and Simon (Jonathan Majors), the play’s romantic element, are both charismatic and sympathetic. Whether deliberately or not, both were noticeably more naturalistic than the rest of the cast, which was occasionally jarring. But in their scenes together—in particular, when Grusha and Simon reunite late in the first act, where they both seem most comfortable with the script — they strike a charming, open-faced harmony. Wilson also shines during the final courtroom scene, when the fate of Michael, the governor’s son, is decided.
Playing the older version of Michael, Hartford fourth-grader Fred Thornley IV (he alternates in the part with New Haven first-grader Kourtney Savage) is appropriately blank-faced, and does an impressively convincing job of appearing jointless, in imitation of the creepily lifelike but decidedly floppy doll that stands in for the younger version of his character.
The most powerful moments of the play, however, come courtesy of the excellent Steven Skybell (a graduate of both Yale College and the Yale School of Drama) in his dual role of the Singer (a narrator figure) and the corrupt judge Azdak. As the Singer, he delivers almost incantatory monologues accompanied by violin and drum. And as Azdak, his flexibility and focus help to carry the second act—though he is, perhaps, a touch too prosaic and humane to match the power of his narrative songs.
During the climactic trial, a lawyer brings up a salient point: whoever ends up with Michael also claims the heir to his father’s substantial estates. Her co-counsel quickly tries to put the emphasis back on the bond between mother and child, but Azdak stops him. “The court is touched by the mention of the estates,” he says. “It’s proof of human feeling.”