When I found out that the director of a current production of Caucasian Chalk Circle had been the Tony Award winning director of the Broadway musical Sweeney Todd. I wondered why no one I knew in the International Brecht Society hadn’t advised directors that doing Sweeney Todd (a murder revenge musical) was a learning process for anyone tackling a gigantic play with enormous historical importance like Caucasian Chalk Circle (derived from Augsburg Chalk Circle, Chinese Chalk Circle and Solomon’s biblical choices). John Doyle at ACT coaxed by Corey… the producer/director and publicist certainly knows her Brecht and how to prepare.
I was invited by a friend to see the production because he was interested in discussing Brecht. I agreed to go if he bought the ticket, he did, and we climbed to the 2nd balcony breathing deeply to watch the thing in the Gallery at a 45-degree angle.
I thought the Gallery was where people booed and talked back to the performers but not in this location, I couldn’t figure out why the director had sirens and noisy crashing sounds plus huge light flashes, along with drops flung in to interrupt the scene, until I realized these were scene changes. They were also gimmicks to keep the audience awake – but what were the sirens about? Oh, I forgot, the “play was about war.” This is what the program stated.
However as I remembered the play (before re-reading it again after the performance a night later) it was about property and motherliness.
“Who uses the property well, who should own it?”—the last line of the play as well (in print) and the first discussion in the prologue between two Kolkhozes.
I bet my friend that the prologue would never appear on an ACT stage. Why? It’s a discussion between two communist Russian Kolkhozes, with people who defeated the Germans discussing the best use of the valley the mountains and the land: Whether or not to put up a dam and use the irrigation water for crops while also allowing the goats to roam the hillside to produce cheese. The Expert agronomist is asked to lay out the plans for the two groups to discuss the choices, perhaps satisfying old peasants and current needs. I think they agree to damage the land both ways (ecological view) but at least there is this discussion as to how to proceed to turn the land into useful production—usefulness is a key idea in Brecht’s play, and the lead character in the fable, parable, folktale turns out to be a good mother—after many difficulties. In the prologue the discussants invite a storyteller to tell a long fable on the subject.
The storyteller, a famous one in the Caucasus (the location of the play) enters with musicians and is asked by the Expert agronomist from Moscow how long will the play be?
Two hours says the storyteller.
The Expert: I have to be in Tiflis tonight, can you cut it short?
No discussion on the use of the land for food production (even though Michael Pollan’s bougie books must have been in the hands of many—how the individual consumer can save the planet) but not even that was referenced.
They cut the prologue and located the play in no place, only on stage as if the actors (ACT people) had agreed to make a play, dressed not in Caucasian costumes rather here now, bare walls, with scribble scrabble drop cloths, and soldier in Afghan US desert duds. No need to interpret the fable, I was not there. The play was distorted, so any meaning and philosophical insight was awkward and weird.
The direction was more like Chorus Line and much like Urine Town with a punch in the stomach, a bang on the head. A repeated image: forthright actors standing in line either on a fence or up against the footlights singing directly to the people. This must have been that dreaded Brechtian-esque trope, ‘alienation’: flat-noted music with a hard text and thin lips. Characters (such as they were) all telling it like it is. The Like it is, is the Like it is. Get it!
By writing different music, (not Paul Dessau), retranslating it (not Ralph Manheim) with enough “f…s to make it current lest the language be too elevated and meaningful, misinterpreting, the director Doyle, with a vague opposition to war—all wars, any war, somewhere ‘what ever.’ “What the “f…” is taking place? Where are we?
What is this play about?
In print it is a good play and I remembered I had seen a fine production done by Carl Weber in 1963 at the SF Actors Workshop, at Marines Memorial Theatre. Weber had just come to the US and was hired by the AW (rootbeer organization) to direct Caucasians, and he did, but he did what everyone is worried about: he produced the Berliner Ensemble model on the Actors’ Workshop stage. I thought it was a great gift and a wonder. I knew the Actors’ Workshop couldn’t do such a production. They were neo realistic, with little or no great directorial or performance style, not like Guthrie in Minnesota: a fine selection of plays with mediocre reasonable productions with no stars, non-Equity, usually intelligent and competent.
But Weber’s Berliner Ensemble remake was stunning. One memorable moment: Grusha the peasant servant picks up the Queen’s child, left behind, after a lot of looking at the bundle and wondering if she should or shouldn’t, and we begin to understand that once she picks up the baby she is in trouble –both as a potential mother protecting it and endangering her own life. The Ironshirts were after the boy to kill it to stop that particular royal line. (One group is overthrown yet later regains control while both destroy many peasants). The fable is set in a distant place.
She picks up the bundle, is followed, hunted and has to cross a rickety bridge over a gorge with the baby. The curtain opens and there is an 80 by 50 photograph of the Caucasian (Ural) mountains and a small bridge with a spotlight on her she sings. Stunning.
No director in the Actors’ Workshop or scenic designer ever would have thought to do such a bold stroke. It also placed this little figure of a human with a bundle in perspective. Obviously thought up elsewhere, and Weber, who worked at the Ensemble, planted the production on top of the actors. Later I talked to him and said the actors would eventually distort his direction. He agreed. And when I spoke to the actors they said: “That Teutonic director told them which hand to move…” They were not used to such stuff—nevertheless we saw a Berliner Ensemble remake and it was astounding.
Barbara Berg Schall, daughter of Helen Weigel and Bertolt Brecht, used to prevent producers in Europe from ruining Brecht’s plays. People thought she was annoying, too restrictive; if she only had control of productions in the USA—how we need such a protector. Stephan Brecht died recently in New York, so he was not around to prevent the bizarre event at ACT.
Dr. R.G. Davis is the founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and a Brecht fanatic.