This has been an AH-mazing year for Brecht on the Off-Broadway Stage. Leading the pack was La Mama’s production of The Good Person of Szechwan. I am in no way exaggerating that Good Person was one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. Catch it when it comes to the Public Theater’s Fall 2013 season if you know what’s best for you.
For Caucasian Chalk Circle to follow up La Mama’s act means it needed to meet public expectations for innovative staging, great musical numbers, diverse talent that showcases Brecht’s knack for combining joyous hilarity with utter sadness, and vibrant direction that mixes fun with social consciousness.
Thankfully, Chalk Circle serves up just such a production. And the thanks doesn’t just go to the show’s poster child (poster-elder?) Christopher Lloyd– I’ll get to Mr. Lloyd and his awesome self in just a minute.
The play masterfully mixes the sentimental and the abstract, comedy and tragedy, potent storytelling and meta-narrative. Throw in a dash of some rather unique musical numbers and imaginative staging– I can barely think of anything this production does wrong.
Now, Chalk Circle
doesn’t have the kitschy pizzazz that made Szechwan a success with audiences. But it is also a rather very different kind of story. Grusha, a palace maid, saves a baby Prince in a turbulent time of Revolution. She raises the child as her own, making many sacrifices along the way to keep the child’s identity a secret. Once the monarchy is restored, however, Grusha is found out and taken to trial. Since Brecht is Brecht, there’s a whole play within a play structure, which the CSC company makes hilarious use of. Grusha, like Shen Te, is a simple yet heartbreaking character that audiences can truly root for. There’s also an interesting motif of motherhood in both plays… was Brecht possibly drawn to motherhood as a contrast to the paternalistic society and alienating economy he worked through? Hm.
The cast plays several parts, all excellently, and there is truly an ensemble quality to the piece. Christopher Lloyd doesn’t so much steal the show as merely astound us with his physical agility, resounding voice, and frank acting. Lloyd actually switches characters mid-play, and the difference between the rickety, low-voiced Singer and his confident, bombastic, vulgar Judge is a credit to his talent (and makes for the best Act I closing line that I have probably ever seen).