'The Caucasian Chalk Circle'
When: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. Through Oct. 28.
Where: Arena Stage, 6th and Maine Ave., S.W., Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 488-3300.
In 1961, when Arena Stage inaugurated its present facility, it did so with Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle." Now Arena has chosen the same play to inaugurate its 40th anniversary season.
The theater's publicity makes much of the fact that the Berlin Wall had just been erected when it first produced the play, and it is returning to it again the year the wall came down. Yet interestingly enough, an insert in the program informs us that Brecht's overtly political prologue was eliminated during rehearsals -- the same decision which, according to a contemporary review, was made in 1961.
The result isn't merely a shortened running time, but the removal of a didactic layer from one of Brecht's most affirmative -- even romantic -- plays. The late German playwright may have been known for creating the "alienation effect," but "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" is surprisingly user friendly, an impression reinforced by director Tazewell Thompson's carefully wrought, large-scale production.
Based on a 14th century Chinese play, the script -- translated from German by Ralph Manheim -- has an almost fairy-tale quality. This is enhanced by the character of a Storyteller, played by raspy-voiced Jane White as a kind of omnipotent mother figure. The fairy-tale element also surfaces in Fabian V. Obispo -- Jr.'s score, which is at times reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods."
The story, transported by Brecht from China to the Caucasus region of southern Russia, begins during a political uprising. A kitchen maid rescues the executed governor's infant heir, Mikhail, who has been abandoned by his selfish mother. The maid, Grusha, raises the child as her own -- with considerable personal hardship -- only to find herself in front of a judge when the war is over. His task is to decide who is the "real" mother -- Grusha or the governor's widow.
Although the play's romantic angle centers around Grusha, Gail Grate's portrayal suggests love can be hard work. Her Grusha is admirably good-hearted -- "terrible is the temptation to do good," the Storyteller says of her -- but Ms. Grate registers more gutsy determination than romance. Caring for young Mikhail has been at least as much sacrifice as joy, and it shows.
On the other hand, based on Lewis J. Stadlen's performance, being a judge is nothing but light-hearted fun. A cross between Groucho Marx and Dr. Pangloss (the role he played in the 1973 Broadway production of "Candide"), this judge displays an array of antics that make his topsy-turvy courtroom look like "Night Court." And that's entirely appropriate since Brecht is suggesting that the law and justice often have little in common.
The production picks up considerably once Mr. Stadlen appears. But there is plenty of intriguing theatricality along the way. Among the eeriest effects are the elastic stocking masks -- similar to those sometimes worn by burn patients -- that costume designer Paul Tazewell uses for some of the villains. And the props on Loy Arcenas' sparse set are kept to an evocative minimum; a bridge is merely a shadow.
Brecht wrote "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" in 1944 for Broadway, an unlikely commission for him. Although the result is more genial than his usual fare, it's uplifting with an edge. In 1961, Arena's selection of this script provoked protests. The current production is unlikely to do the same, but it's still got some fairly unsettling things to say about human nature.