Caucasian Chalk Circle
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
June 26, 2009
The performance of Performance Lab 115's Caucasian Chalk Circle begins in the basement of the Chocolate Factory, where the audience, after waiting in the lobby, is directed to stand around a table with a map. The actors are interspersed among the audience as they begin a land dispute set in a collective farm in Georgia after the Second World War. This establishes the audience as part of the debating groups, and therefore having direct cause to hear the upcoming story. Out of the crowd emerges the possessed grin of the Singer, played by Rebecca Lingafelter, who summons the actors, followed by the audience, out of the room to hear a story that will help with the dispute. Led by the Singer, the ensemble sings as the audience moves upstairs, providing an enjoyable revelation of the performance space. Then there is the first of a series of clean, fast transitions—present throughout the play, especially notable when moving in and out of the Singer's segments—thrusting the audience into the story.
But, from this point on it seems that the story moves outside of the bounds of the tale told by the group in Georgia, and into a full-fledged production. Not bound to any particular setting, style, or genre, the story moves forward at a good pace, some scenes with highly stylized movement, while for others the actions seem more unceremonious. The choreography by Beth Kurkjian often adds texture and emphasizes the main action of scenes, but also sometimes seems superfluous. The production is consistent in its Brechtian detached performance style, enlarging most characters and situations, as is fitting for a fable. The large number of transitional songs from the Singer accompanied by banjo player Mark Valadez help clarify the complex parts of the narrative, and a gamut of sound effects they create contributes to the actions of the scenes as well.
A maid named Grusha, played by Rachel Jablin, whose performance emanates sweetness, finds a child abandoned by her mistress, the Governor's Wife, played by Rachel Schwartz with despicable nose-in-the-air affectation, after an overthrow of the Governor's government. Grusha has the "terrible temptation to do good," and decides to care for the orphan. Her journey throughout the play is one where she must often choose between her own life's good and the good of the child. She comes to love the child that is represented by a small sack with a metal circle as its head, not merely as a burden, but as her own.
The second act introduces the story of Azdak, played by Marty Keiser, the man who will eventually become Judge over the trial for whether the child belongs to Grusha, or its birth mother, the Governor's Wife. This act is far more farcical than Grusha's story, but that does not mean our connection to Azdak is not effectively developed.
There are a number of stand-out performances besides those already mentioned. Ben Vershbow gives an especially dynamic performance as a sleazy southern Corporal. Sara Buffamanti's uber-nerd is a delight to watch dance and sing in a show-stopping number in Azdak's story with the chorus "is it so?"
But, I question how the overall lack of cohesion in this production directed by Alice Reagan serves an already divided story. Publicity materials for the production say that it is "set in a half-finished building taken over by squatters," but I failed to see the presence of that in the production. A number of the design components, by Peter Ksander, could be seen to reflect that setting, but the variety of props and costumes by Asta Hostetter, ranging from full mountain climbing gear to riot police masks, indicate otherwise. It must be as I assumed initially, that the world of the play broke from any specific world after the collective farm meeting, taking from whatever world served it, rather than sticking to its squatters "concept." Outside of that disunity, the design of the production is attractive and often inventive. The simple usage of wooden planks attached to buckets to represent a thin mountain crossing is an example of the design's ingenuity, and the seamless scenic transitions generally are a tribute to the room's spatial organization.
I don't want to give the production's ingenious ending away, but I carried away the clear idea that this is a play about rightful ownership. What I missed is the presence of that idea at work through the majority of the production, despite its being well decorated with cool sound effects, dynamic movement and quick transitions.