Taking Sides in a Circle
Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht Harvard Law School Drama Society Pound Hall Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 16 and 17
BERTOLT BRECHT is one of those playwrights about whom there can be no equivocation. In his plays, like it or not, one must take a side, either with the rapacious, self-centered capitalists or the downtrodden but gritty workingmen. Brecht's drama, to borrow Lionel Trilling's phrase, takes place at that "bloody crossroads where art and politics meet."
Caucasian Chalk Circle, currently being produced by the Harvard Law School Drama Society, boldy pits the bourgeois authority--manifested in the persons of the governor of a Caucasian Village and his wife--against the simple stolidity of the proletariat, in the person of Grusha, their servant girl. The backdrop is the bloody imbroglio of civil war. Grusha, simply and sincerely portrayed by Brooke Stark, retrieves the governor's child. Michael, who has been left behind in the frenzied exodus from the Village. She protects the baby throughout the conflict, risking her personal safety as well as her love for the soldier Simon (Tony Poole), enduring persecution for the child's sake: her unselfishness is complete. In contrast. Michael's real mother--played in fine, shrill-voiced style by Bethany Tanner--is a petty and uncaring termagant, mostly interested in how many of her silk gowns she can salvage from the fray.
Brecht, an incredibly ambitious and fecund playwright, borrows Eastern and particularly Indian techniques for Chalk Circle. The inserted songs, somewhat reedily rendered by Stark; the stage-manager as chorus, marvelously narrated by clarion-voiced Andrew Garrett; the use of scene titles--all wed form with geography to good effect. Director Thomas Seoh might have exploited this exotic influence more extravagantly with stilts or wire-hoops. Seoh seemed a bit diffident about taking such directorial prerogatives.
As it is, this production makes little of either costumes or stage, save for one fine touch by lighting designer Marshall Thomsen. He projects a "gobo on the skim" which, in layman's language means inserting a metal cut-out in the theatrical light and shining it on a muslin drape. The effect is a jagged, broken silhouette that mirrors the fragmented hopes of the protagonists.
THE CAST, although generally competent, particularly warms to their roles during the last scene, which-appropriately enough for a law school audience--takes place in a courtroom. From an epic style in the earlier portion of the play. Brecht shifts nimbly to parable. Grusha must contend with the haughty mother over who will gain possession of the child. Azdak, the magistrate-rogue, played with animation by David Miller, gives the "chalk-circle test." Grusha lets go of Michael because she doesn't want to hurt him "I brought him up! Should I tear him apart? I can't do it." In a reversal of the Biblical story of King Solomon, Azdak awards Michael not to his real mother, but to Grusha.
The law school performance follows Brecht's script faithfully, but does not venture into new or experimental theatrical terrain. The result is a bit spare, even stingy. In a major omission, Seoh leaves out the celebratory dance at the end of the play, perhaps because of the limited size of the auditorium. Such a formalistic rendering of the play shortchanges the audience.
Members of the cast each played at least two and as many as six roles which sometimes worked well, depending upon the actor. Jonathan E. Alsop slid versatilely from the pomposity of the Grand Duke to the kind-heartedness of the peasant Lavrenti. And Stephen Kent neatly changed gears from the obsequious Fat Prince to the macho Corporal to the doddering Old Man. However, Daniel Hershman was dismayingly flat, whether as the governor, monk, or Shauwa.
BRECHT'S Caucasian Chalk Circle is yet another of his sagas of strong proletarian women fighting for a better world, women who retain their belief in goodness despite bourgeois disorder and chaos. One sees echoes of Grusha's stamina in Brecht's Mother Courage and St. Joan. If the world is to be saved in Brecht's eyes, it will be saved by Women--suffering pours iron into their veins. They have been through hell and back, yet they come out smiling.