Azdak and the Ironshirts

The Caucasian Chalk Circle tonight at the Loeb Ex at 7:30

MOST OF The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play-within-a-play, an entertainment put on by a Georgian singer for two collective farms which have agreed to redivide their lands after helping to drive the Nazis from the Soviet Union. The singer's play tells about the tribulations of Grusha, a girl who in the old days when Kazbek princes ruled Georgia took pity on a governor's son during a palace revolution; and about the trials of Azdak, a peasant who during the revolt managed to make himself a judge, and used the lawbooks for sitting on, turning them against the rich folks who'd written them.

Brecht's theme was the revolutionary farmers' takeover of what was best in the past, its songs and the belief in personal and communal dignity that lay behind them. So he showed the roots of the farmers' anti-fascist slogans and collective ambitions in simple, legendary stories, and the way the values of the stories made the anti-fascist slogans make sense, like Azdak's Solomon-like decision that Grusha keeps the governor's child because she won't try to pull him from a circle in a tug-of-war with the governor's ambitious widow. As a result, The Caucasian Chalk Circle has a traditional, tender, open quality that Brecht rarely allowed himself, and an archetypal quality that makes its hope seem universal, the natural birthright, sold again and again but somehow always recovered, of all the people of a constantly changing world.

THIS ARCHETYPAL quality, like the rest of the play, comes through tonight's Loeb Ex production beautifully. Occasionally Cindy Rosenwald, the director, seems to seek it explicitly--in a stylized slapstick quarrel between the governor's son's two frightened doctors, for example. But just as effectively, most of the time she lets it grow naturally out of the comedy of the play--in Grusha's marriage with a purportedly dying peasant, for instance, where the musicians have to play "something that could be either a subdued Wedding March or a spirited Funeral Dirge." Rosenwald even makes Grusha's flight on a rotting bridge spanning a 2000-foot abyss convincing, with a little help from Susanne Boyce, who did the props: the bridge is just a plank between two bundles of hay, but it works. So do the conceivably awkward fadeouts between the play's brief scenes, which are linked by the resonant narration of John Philips as the singer.

Nearly all Rosenwald's actors are also excellent, most of them in several different roles, although Tom Yellin, Charles Weinstein, Jomo Schur, Kristen Wiley, and especially Mary Tisco seemed to me to stand out the most. Suki Taylor is a remarkably winning Grusha. Neal Solomon dominates things whenever he's on stage, as the profane and bribe-demanding judge whose tenure is remembered as a brief golden age of justice because he's willing to fine for atheism the rich farmers who don't like miraculous explanations for their provisions' presence in a poor peasant's larder--"I ask Your Honor," the woman, a bit overplayed by someone the program lists as Alison C., explains, "was there ever a time when a poor old woman could get a ham without a miracle?"

I think it could be argued that Solomon should emphasize Azdak's sneering sardonicism less, especially in the scenes before the last, and be more simply sincere at least in his initial revulsion at mistakenly helping the grand duke escape and in his questions to the defendants he plans to acquit. But he turns in a virtuoso performance, and the most important thing shines through it: Brecht's call to action, for another Azdakian era of disorder at the end of which Azdak won't have to apologize for not being a hero or address his Ironshirted attackers as "Fellow dogs," for a dialectical revolution like the one the Ironshirts announce when they first dress Azdak in judicial robes. "The judge was always a rascal," the first Ironshirt says. "Now the rascal shall be a judge."