Court Theatre

Terrible is the temptation to do good!

–the Singer, The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Virtue may be its own reward, but that’s little protection in a world that despises it. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle Brecht told a bitter truth–that the rich expect the poor to be submissive and to act morally, so they can fleece them more effectively–that charges the play with the kind of knowing anger vital to Brecht’s polemics.

Sometimes, as in Mother Courage and Her Children, that anger can’t find a cause and turns back on itself: Mother Courage’s obsession with enduring cuts her off from the world, and her survival means nothing. Sometimes the good can’t continue without subversion: the morally schizophrenic heroine in The Good Woman of Sezuan develops a predatory alter ego in order to maintain her kindness.

In The Caucasian Chalk Circle (which Brecht based on both a legend of King Solomon and a 13th-century Chinese play) doing good seems more an instinct than a choice: only rich people are always able to choose. In a time of civil unrest, the kitchen maid Grusha rescues a noble child abandoned by his selfish mother, the Governor’s Wife. Though a lifetime of hard times has taught Grusha to expect no help, her kindness defies her experience and she saves the baby as automatically as the mother has deserted him. She then tenaciously honors her unsought trust, escaping pursuing soldiers by crossing a perilous footbridge, enduring the evil hospitality of her religious sister-in-law, and marrying for money.

In Grusha’s war-ridden world, goodness is an antisocial aberration; the terrible conditions can neither justify nor protect her strange integrity–but Azdak, Brecht’s wonderful comic creation, does both. A rabbit catcher who becomes, through the misfortunes of war, a judge (just as Grusha becomes a surrogate mother), the crafty, hard-drinking Azdak creates a real people’s court. Nobody is too poor to bribe this equal-opportunity opportunist. A populist magistrate who bends the rules to help the hurt, he considers justice a commodity like bread.

Inevitably Grusha appears before Azdak in the custody battle that pits her against the Governor’s Wife; the “natural” mother only wants her son back because he holds title to her estate. To test their love for the child, Azdak offers the two mothers Solomon’s challenge: the child belongs to the woman who can tear him from the chalk circle. The outcome is inevitable–and much more satisfying than what often happens in local child-custody cases. Here goodness actually revives justice.

The lesson Azdak offers–“Things should belong to those who do well by them”–also confirms a larger point. The Caucasian Chalk Circle offers a parable within a parable–“old and new wisdoms make an excellent mixture,” as Brecht writes in the play. Grusha’s saga is enacted by the Singer and his players, who celebrate the resolution of a property dispute between two communes in the Caucasus. The fruit farmers are taking possession of a valley formerly cultivated by goatherds. The reason: their yield will be superior.

Unfortunately the yield from Court Theatre’s dark-toned Circle is somewhat meager. Staged by Jeff Steitzer, artistic director of A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle, it’s emotionally accurate and invincibly cast, but the story telling lacks urgency; you wonder how compelling it can be to the members of the communes who listen. Steitzer’s Circle plays its moments well, but it seems to stumble from one calamity to another as if all were equally absurd.

The biggest departure from other productions of Circle is the lack of a sense of community. Brecht intended the actors–he calls them a “chorus”–to observe the action when they’re not in it: they’re supposed to visibly take in the story they also act out. The Court production has eliminated the play’s inner audience, which Brecht intended to reinforce the response of the outer, real one. Coupled with the production’s Method-minded realism, which doesn’t fit Brecht, this omission takes a toll on the parable’s effectiveness. The tones of the two acts are also inconsistent: the first act seems much more real than the stylized, vaudevillelike second act, when Azdak’s shenanigans almost make us forget Grusha’s heroism.

Not surprisingly, then, the work of individuals counts more than it should–but here Steitzer’s staging reveals its gold. If Linda Emond’s Grusha seems to make up her life as she goes along, she does it with a feeling of inevitability that tells us she’s part of a legend. When she breaks into Brecht’s a cappella songs, it makes sense: Emond has charged Grusha’s lines with too much buried feeling for mere speech.

Steitzer has not made the important role of the Singer an independent one. Dan Oreskes plays both the Singer and Azdak (and Emond briefly takes over the Singer’s part in the second act). The double duty for Oreskes exacts a price: he conveys the Singer’s omniscience better than he does wily Azdak’s sleights of justice. (Admittedly Azdak is a killer role, complete with enough pratfalls, reversals, and double entendres to exhaust the Marx Brothers.)

Solid support comes from Deanna Dunagan as the cold-blooded Governor’s Wife (who resembles Dunagan’s equally forbidding Volumnia in Next Theatre’s Coriolanus–and Nancy Reagan) and Ray Chapman as Grusha’s much-tested soldier lover, Simon. Denis O’Hare, a reliably scathing comic, runs through a whole tournament of deft comic cameos. But the ensemble work–usually a Court Theatre forte–seems slapdash and secondary.

If technical design can brood, Court’s does. Rita Pietraszek’s somber lighting all but eclipses its own effects. The barbaric earth-toned set pieces, grotesque masks, and socially stratified costumes by Mary Griswold and John Paoletti almost caricature the characters’ class struggles. In contrast with these studies in darkness is composer Larry Schanker’s second-act music: its celebration of Azdak’s justice shines incongruously bright.