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Smudged Circle 

Agitprop meets musical in this too-long -- but still powerful -- Brecht revival

Wednesday, Aug 11 2004
Bertolt Brecht's last great play, written for Broadway in the '40s with the idea of teaching well-heeled Americans about property rights, premiered at Minnesota's Carleton College in 1948. To make it work on Broadway, Brecht had even thrown in a bunch of pointless songs, but The Caucasian Chalk Circle never reached its intended audience until a Lincoln Center production in the mid-'60s, when it was too late to teach New Yorkers anything -- they'd all read Brecht in college.

Chalk Circle, like Brecht's Mother Courage, is great in spite of itself. It's a parable based on a King Solomon-type story. Two mothers fight for a child; a clever judge settles their quarrel with a test. Solomon recommended carving the baby in half, but Brecht admired a version of the tale adapted by a German writer from a 13th-century Chinese drama, in which a judge orders the women to place the kid inside a chalk circle -- and pull. The one who refuses to play tug of war wins.

Brecht's version is earthy and sarcastic. In the Caucasus Mountains, on the border between Georgia and Persia, war forces the rich Governor's Wife to evacuate in a tizzy. She forgets her swaddled infant son, Michael; a peasant woman named Grusha saves him. Grusha wanders in the mountains with Michael for a couple of years. Meanwhile, a war-wracked town raises a drunken peasant named Azdak to the rank of judge. When Grusha and the Governor's Wife show up to argue over Michael, Azdak invents the chalk-circle test. Brecht twists age-old tradition by showing how a woman who isn't the real mom -- but who loves the boy with a peasant's heart -- deserves to keep the kid.

His version is didactic, though, too. It's no secret that the witty Brecht could be a Marxist bore. The original first act of Chalk Circle, called "The Dispute Over the Valley," was meant to peddle the parable's lesson in current-events terms (current, that is, for 1948): Peasants in Soviet Georgia bicker over what to do with their ancestral valley now that the Nazis have been shoved out. Soviet apparatchiks want to make it a reservoir. The farmers, obviously, want to move home, and you might think Brecht would take their side. But no -- the farmers are like the Governor's Wife; they abandoned the valley. The Soviets fought for it tooth and nail. So, for the "common good," the apparatchiks win, and a theater troupe mounts the parable of Grusha to celebrate. Red Chinese propaganda for flooding Three Rivers Gorge could not be more disgusting. Most directors -- including Cliff Mayotte, who directs this show -- wisely cut "The Dispute."

In a lot of ways this outdoor Chalk Circle in John Hinkel Park feels like the Shotgun Players' raggedly successful Mother Courage last year: It has the same wild spirit, the same pots-and-pans percussion, the same feisty acting and out-of-tune singing by Trish Mulholland, who does brilliant work as both Grusha and the Governor's Wife (and a few other characters). Valera Coble has designed rich, vaguely Muslim costumes, and Greg Dunham has built a simple wooden frame set draped in fabric that serves as a backdrop for Caucasian farms as well as the governor's palace.

But it's also too long. Mayotte leaves in too many songs and too many details about the "political situation" between Persia and the Caucasian villages. Those details have no life. Brecht never seriously cared about any centuries-old political situation in the Caucasus; he just wanted to draw a parallel with "The Dispute Over the Valley."

Mayotte does have fun with his cast by moving them in and out of different roles. Not just Mulholland but also Karla Acosta and Sofia Ahmad take turns as Grusha; Andrew Alabran, Mulholland, and the mighty John Thomas play Azdak; Alabran also turns up in drag as a peasant wife and in pajamas as a very funny, seemingly almost dead young man named Yussup. (Grusha marries Yussup to legitimize Michael.) And Louise Chegwidden -- who can really sing -- plays the narrating Singer, along with other roles.

By revolving his actors, Mayotte wants to make a point about identity, but even with amusing papier-mâché puppets and masks (which turn, for example, a pair of lawyers into a single two-faced man), the point seems forced.

The last few years of summer performances by the Shotgun Players have evolved from Shakespeare in the park through Greek tragedy to a fledgling tradition of outdoor Brecht, which brings the company dangerously close to competing with the Mime Troupe (see below) for open-air agitprop, so I wish Mayotte had concentrated a bit harder on focusing his show. It lacks the energy of last year's Mother Courage. The smudges on this Circle only reconfirm the iron rule that seems to apply to reviving Brecht: You have to know how to cut him.


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