The Caucasian Chalk Circle
"The Caucasian Chalk Circle," at BYU
by Eric D. Snider
Published on February 13, 2000
BYU's production of Bertolt Brecht's theatrical curiosity "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" helps point out exactly what a critical review is supposed to do: We ask the question, "What was this production trying to accomplish?" Then we ask, "Did it succeed? Why or why not?"
The production, directed by David Morgan, seems to keep with Brecht himself in its intentions: to be an unusual experience for the audience, at times entertaining, at times thought-provoking, and at times just damn weird.
Eric Fielding's set design has some audience members sitting on the stage, which takes up the entire area -- there is no wing space or backstage area; it's all open. All the lights are visible instead of being hidden by curtains, some characters are played by more than one actor, with the performers changing a few simple costume items right in front of us in order to make the transition, and occasionally, lines of dialogue are projected onto a screen in the back. When the actors aren't onstage, they're sitting off to the side, watching, like we are.
Brecht, rather than wanting to pull people into a different world for a couple hours, wanted instead for them never to forget that they were watching a play. Mission accomplished.
The basic story is about a servant woman named Grusha (Amy Ashworth Barrus), who is in love with the soldier Simon (Mason Lefler). He has to go off to war, but she promises to wait for him. In the meantime, the governor gets killed during an uprising, and his wife (Amber Helm) sorta kinda forgets about her baby in all the brouhaha, leaving it for Grusha to pick up and care for as her own.
She marries an old, dying man in order to make "her" child legitimate, and the baby grows into a young boy (played by a creepy-looking marionette manipulated by two cast membrs). After a while, the governor's wife shows up again and wants her baby back. So whose child is it? The one who gave it birth, or the one who cared for it?
It's a pretty simple storyline, and it's ultimately settled in a Solomon-like manner by the dishonest-but-wise Azdac the judge (Ary Farahnakian).
What makes the play un-simple are all the odd factors surrounding the story. Fourteen actors play nearly 100 characters, often using masks that, rather than distinguishing them, make them all look the same. Characters occasionally break into song. The first 20 minutes of the play are chaotic, incomprehensible madness, leaving you hopelessly lost and hoping the whole show isn't like that. (It's not; the aforementioned simple plot kicks in after a while.) The play supposedly has a very strong anti-war sentiment, but one only knows that from reading the program.
There's a loooong flashback about how Azdac became a judge, and the sequence typifies the play as a whole. It's interesting to watch, occasionally humorous, undeniably strange -- and in the end, I still have no idea how, exactly, he became a judge. The characters all know, but they didn't explain it very well to me.
You know you've got a strange show on your hands when intermission is filled with half the audience trying to explain to the other half what has just happened.
So does the show warrant a good review? Yes. It accomplishes its goals, and it's done with gusto and dedication: For as weird as the show is, it never seems to be TRYING to be weird.
Does that mean it's something you'll enjoy? I don't think "Caucasian Chalk Circle" WANTS you to enjoy it thoroughly. It wants to you to be confused, and even put off now and then. But whatever it tries -- whether it's comedy, strangeness or depth -- it succeeds at it.
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
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