The Caucasian Chalk Circle
nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
April 26, 2008
[Editor's Note: Find a summary of the plot of The Caucasian Chalk Circle on GradeSaver.]
Theatre aficionados can go this month to Joe's Pub to see Mike Daisey make a case for the re-establishment of strong acting ensembles to bring life back into the theatre. Then they could go a few short blocks down to 45 Bleecker and see Hipgnosis Theatre Company's magical resuscitation of Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle. This is a sharp and insightful play; a parable just as suited for when it was first written as it is for our time of "two Americas." The artistry of this group of creative phenoms is truly admirable and certainly could be used as Exhibit A for Mr. Daisey's argument.
Kudos should be given to the company for picking such a challenging script and for putting care, time, and effort into bringing it to life. This opening night felt more like it was six weeks into the run. Director Margot Newkirk is amply inventive in her use of the arena stage of the downstairs theatre at 45 Bleecker. The actors work without a set but take the audience to several dozen locations throughout the evening. To do this without any unmotivated blocking-for-blocking's-sake moves is remarkable.
Meta-theatrics abound but do not draw attention to themselves, achieving Brecht's alienation effect with delicacy and lyricism. At times the actors sit down with the audience or hover around the edges of the stage. It brings goose pimples to experience them erupt in song directly behind you and keeps you wondering what will happen next. Actors do break the fourth wall with regularity in this show but the audience is never put on the spot.
The 13-member ensemble forms a juggernaut of character-actor power and takes on 80+ roles in this play. Vitality, precision, quality, grace, generosity, commitment, humor, technique, confidence, and joy are served up by all the actors. Rachel Tiemann, Demetrios Bonaros, Richard Ugino, Ayanna Siverls, Pharah Jean-Philippe, Hal Fickett, John Castro, John Kevin Jones, Colleen Kennedy, Matthew Kinney, Elizabeth Mirarchi, Douglas Scott Streater, and Dennis J. Paton rock! Rachel Tiemann brings a lot of heart to the central role of Grusha. She gets bonus points for having to act most of the time opposite a folded blanket representing a baby.
Just as the actors are protean with all the numerous roles, Robert Nguyen's lighting design and Krista Thomas-Scott's costume design are simple, clear, and multifarious. The latter's work is impressive because she uses only three muted colors but achieves a great variety through the line and cuts of her pieces. The design seemed to be working on three different eras: ancient Chinese (the period of the play), Brecht's Germany, and today's quagmire. Nguyen's work is subtle and unobtrusive; a mature and tasteful approach to a difficult play.
Bonaros and Ugino's a cappella music in this production adds a lot of depth and texture, serving to change scenes, narrate, and shift the tone of the scenes. The vocal work in this production is some of the finest I have heard in indie theatre.
While it does admittedly take a few minutes to get into this show due to the strange names (e.g., Natella Abashvilli and Simon Chachava) and getting adjusted to the world (e.g. "oh, they're in a new location" and "wow, there's at least six reviewers in the audience with notepads out in plain sight"), the heightened theatricality seems to grow by what it is fed on. By intermission, you'll be hungry for more.
To see a production of Brecht that is neither paint-by-numbers or pretentious, please see Hipgnosis Theatre Company's The Caucasian Chalk Circle.