Commons Theatre

I have two collegiate drama anthologies in my house: Drama in the Western World by Samuel A. Weiss of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Masterpieces of the Drama, by three guys from the University of Michigan. Both cover about 800 pages. Both start with Sophocles and finish up with Beckett, making stops at Moliere, Ibsen, and Chekhov along the way. Both are green, for some reason. And both include Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

That’s a wise choice, all in all. If you’re going to read just one Brecht play in college, The Caucasian Chalk Circle ought to be the one. Because no other Brecht play gives you so many Brechts. Or lays them out so neatly, either. First scene: Brecht the good communist. Next three scenes: Brecht the teller of moral tales. Fifth scene: Brecht the baggy-pants comic. Final scene: a mix of all preceding Brechts.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle may not be the greatest Brecht play, but it’s clearly the most Brechtian: a late work by a master who knows his voices and moves among them–plays among them–with tremendous assurance.

Based on a 14th-century Chinese play called The Chalk Circle, Brecht’s script opens at a meeting of workers from the Galinsk and Rosa Luxemburg collective farms, away down South in Soviet Georgia. World War II has just ended and the Galinskers–who herd goats–want to return to their ancestral valley, from which they’d moved “on orders from the authorities” during the war.

Trouble is, the Luxemburgers–who raise fruit trees–think they can make better use of it. They’ve put together a plan for an irrigation project that would make the scrubby valley fertile and allow them to increase their fruit production tenfold.

Well, the Galinskers hem and haw a bit. But staunch collectivists that they are, they finally give in without much fuss at all. This is obviously the good communist section of the play: a perfect little socialist realist vignette, where earnest and thoughtful farmers stud their sentences with cries of “Death to the fascists!” and quotes from Mayakovski.

And are very hard to take seriously–especially in view of the distinctly uncollectivist rioting that’s been going on in that neck of the Soviet Union lately. You might want to read this scene as a politic sop to the Stalinist culture priests, who’d been pissed off over Brecht’s antirealist deviations in the past.

Or then again, you might want to read it as an impolitic swipe at those very same priests, since the scene leads right into just such a deviation. The meeting over, a storyteller named Arkadi entertains the farmers with his tale of Grusha–a servant in the household of Georgi Abashwili, the rich and ruthless governor of a town known as the City of the Damned.

When Abashwili’s deposed and beheaded, his wife–a shoe fetishist a la Imelda Marcos–flees, leaving her baby son Michael behind. And poor Grusha is stuck with him. Grusha starts out just trying to keep the kid from harm, but ends up raising him with great hardship and love. That’s Brecht the teller of moral tales.

The baggy-pants Brecht appears with the introduction of Adzak, a cranky peasant philosopher. Adzak encounters what he takes to be a peasant running from the law, and hides him. When the peasant turns out to be a fugitive noble from Abashwili’s circle, Adzak’s so horrified he turns himself in to soldiers of the new government. Times being what they are, however, he ends up serving as a judge–taking bribes and dispensing a cracked but wise sort of populist justice. We get to watch him preside at the very sexist, very funny trial of a stableman for raping his boss’s daughter-in-law.

After a while Abashwili’s widow returns from exile and, realizing she can’t claim the headless governor’s estates without the headless governor’s son in her possession, has Grusha and Michael brought before the bar. Adzak’s bar, naturally. There follows a trial to determine who has the more valid right to be Michael’s mother. That’s where the chalk circle comes in. It’s also where Brecht combines his moralist, vaudevillian, and best small c communist selves in a tour de force of wit and style and loving kindness–emerging finally as that thing implicit in each of his personas: Brecht the great teacher.

Directed by Patrick Nugent, the new Commons Theatre production does exquisite justice to every Brecht it encounters–including Brecht the poet, who shows up in the various songs strewn around the script, set here in a sweet-yet-knowing traditional style by Charles Wilding-White, Ray Wilding-White, and Eric Sandhusen. Even that first socialist realist scene draws a little humanity from Nugent and his ensemble.

Which is a wonderful ensemble, and lots of fun to watch. Cameron Pfiffner’s moves as Adzak are brilliantly Marxist in the Grouchovian sense. Michael Nowak’s a presence as the storyteller Arkadi. And Ellyn Duncan finally sheds the superciliousness that’s ruined several of her other performances and gives us strong work as Grusha–thanks partly to Nugent’s application of Brechtian alienation techniques.

Dorothy Milne shows that her great performance in the Organic Theater’s Conduct of Life wasn’t a fluke, while Kathryn Gallagher shows a talent for combining the body command of a mime with an unmimishly earthy sense of humor. I love Sarah Bradley’s eyes and Patricia Hannon’s whole face. In fact, if I have any problem at all with the show it’s that Nugent’s elliptical seating pattern makes it impossible for me to see everybody’s face at once.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/D. Renar.