Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle activates Dennis' delete key

Apr 23, 2008 at 4:00 am

Playgoers who attend the current Hydeware production of Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle are getting two stories for the price of one. Act One chronicles the narrative of Grusha (Emily Piro), an impostor-mother who has "stolen" a child whose birth mother was negligent. Act Two focuses on Adzak (Robert Ashton), a rascally impostor-judge with an uncanny ability for meting out justice. By evening's end these two parallel tracks collide when Adzak must determine the child's future.

The script was begun in 1943 and 1944 while Brecht, a refugee from Germany, was sitting out World War II in Santa Monica. (He aptly described that period as his "exile in paradise.") Although Chalk Circle is based on an old Chinese drama that told the biblical tale of Solomon's stratagem in dealing with two women who claimed the same child, this play of ideas is actually Brecht's meditation on the future of a postwar world. He moves the locale to the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, a remote country sandwiched between Russia and Turkey. Especially through the prologue (which might have been written later, for it is set in 1945 after the war in Europe has ended), Brecht posits a pro-Marxist view of a future-world in which the revolutionary mind will bring forth a new morality. (We now know how wrong he was.)

Brecht defined his brand of playwriting as "Epic theater," by which he meant that structure and craft were unimportant. His plays usually consist of a loose sequence of independent scenes. He avoids tapping into the viewer's emotions, preferring instead a detachment that will encourage audiences to think about what they're hearing rather than be moved by what they're seeing. It might well be that Brecht would have been crazy about this production: It is detached to the point of ennui. It is nigh impossible for the viewer to become involved with or affected by anything that occurs onstage. There is, however, ample time for thinking. But instead of mulling over Brecht's political views, you might find yourself asking questions like: Why am I here?

An even more urgent question is: What has happened to Hydeware? This used to be a really fun theater company. They could even have fun with serious works like Edward Albee's The Zoo Story. The irreverent Poona the Fuckdog was an unalloyed delight; so too was Bleacher Bums. But now they're so humorless. The Caucasian Chalk Circle does not even aspire to seriousness: It is merely stultifying.