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A Late-Soviet Chalk Circle At Classic Stage

Alex Hurt, Christopher Lloyd and Deb Radloff in The Caucasian Chalk Circle

A few years ago, I spent some time with a group of young American actors who had studied at the Moscow Art Theater for four years, then come back to America to form a theater company of their own, Studio Six. They put on several innovative productions, the most interesting of which were a play based on a Chekhov short story and a play based on a portion of a Dostoevsky novel, and what I liked about both pieces was the fact that you never lost sight of the fact that you were watching theater – and yet maintained a firm emotional connection with the characters behaving so theatrically. You were, somehow, kept analytically distant and emotionally close at the same time.

Classic Stage’s wonderful current production of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle reminded me of my old friends from Studio Six on multiple levels.

Most obviously, because the production is framed by a conceit that it is being staged by a group of Russian actors in 1990 or 1991 – right as the Soviet Union is falling apart around them. The frame is used to wonderful comic effect repeatedly over the course of the evening, first with the lights going out leaving the troupe hanging around in the dark singing the Internationale (which had been dropped as the Soviet anthem in 1944 – but there wouldn’t be much of a joke in singing this); then with a request to the audience to join the actors on stage to serve as guests at a wedding (because, due to the management’s “extravagant incompetence” there are not enough actors to do the scene); and later leading the audience in a sing-along of an exceptionally simple chorus to one of the many songs (it consisted of a single syllable: “oh,” which they helpfully raised on signs).

And it is used to expressive effect in the many ways that wonderful theatrical effects are achieved with impoverished means: suitcases strewn across the stage to represent a rickety bridge over a chasm; sponges squeezed into metal pails to represent the sound of snow melting off the roof – these are the kinds of tricks that any small theater company might invent, but their poverty resonated differently with the late-Soviet setting. (And kudos to director Brian Kulick, lighting designer Justin Townsend, and set designer Tony Straiges for the collective achievement of creating this resonant world.)

But more because, contra Brecht’s own theatrical theories, these “alienating” maneuvers that remind us we are watching a play don’t take us out of the story – they bring us deeper into it. They are telling another story: a story about why this story is being told.

To recap the main story that is being told: Grusha, the servant woman (the very affecting Elizabeth A. Davis), cares for the abandoned infant son of the hated Governor and his heartless materialist harpy of a wife (played with great comic zest by Mary Testa, who plays a couple of other nasty old lady roles as well), saving him from capture (and likely death) when the revolution breaks out, spiriting him out of town, entering into a loveless match (with a farmer faking his death to avoid the draft, played with real menace by Jason Babinsky, who’s also excellent as the Lawyer in the climactic trial) to ensure he has a roof over his head (she doesn’t know what has become of her beloved soldier, played with powerful simplicity by Alex Hurt), and raising him as a mother – until the revolutionary tide is reversed, and his mother demands his return.

She is brought before a corrupt judge, Azdak (who’s got his own story that takes up most of the play’s second act – he’s played with the full 1.21 gigawatts by Chrisopher Lloyd, who brings the house down with his hilarious judgment of a medical malpractice case, but he also plays the narrator in the first half, and does so very unobtrusively). He must decide who the true mother is. After listening to testimony, he cannot decide – on the one hand, he hates the old Governor and his wife (his whole judicial philosophy is to combine utterly venal corruption with a firm thumb on the little guy’s side of the scale); on the other hand, they have bribed him, and Grusha can’t afford to. On the one hand, Grusha clearly loves the boy (who is played, by the way, by a terribly sad puppet, manipulated by Tom Riis Farrell, who also plays several other roles, though he is most affecting as the leader of the Russian acting troupe in the frame story); on the other hand, if he awards the child to his biological mother, the kid will grow up rich, and safe.

And so he resorts to the chalk circle of the title (Caucasian because the play nominally takes place in feudal Georgia, although the actors of the frame story appear to have set it in their present). The boy is placed in the center. Each woman claimant grabs an arm. And whoever wrests him out of the circle wins him. Grusha can’t do it – she loses him twice, in fact, never pulling on his arm at all – and cries out: what is she supposed to do, tear him to bits? And yet the corrupt and cynical judge Azdak awards her the boy, and the play ends with the announcement that Azdak’s brief tenure as judge was later remembered as a kind of golden age.

What is this climactic scene about? It’s a happy ending, because the only unequivocally good character is rewarded, and that reward appears to be the result of pure human feeling, not the outcome of some kind of class conflict. But why the chalk circle? What’s the purpose of this trial by ordeal?

The play is supposed to derive from a 14th century Chinese play, but it has always reminded me of an earlier precursor, the story of Solomon splitting the baby. In that story, King Solomon must judge a case where two women claim the same child. He proposes to cut the baby in half. One woman agrees – the other withdraws her claim to save the child. And so King Solomon awards the baby to the mother who withdrew, because obviously the true mother would rather lose the child than see it killed.

The biblical text says that, when they heard the story of this judgment, the people “feared the king” [1 Kings 3:28]. “Fear” in biblical Hebrew may be better translated “awe” in some circumstances, but I prefer to read it as fear – because there’s a political meaning behind the story. Solomon’s father, David, ruled a kingdom beset by civil strife; he had to put down a revolt by his own son, and then another by the northern tribes. Solomon himself was only able to claim the throne after a struggle with his older brother (as David was only able to claim the throne after the deaths of Saul and Jonathan). Avoiding a repeat of his father’s bloody reign must have been a central concern of the new king.

And that’s the subtext of the story. The baby is the united kingdom of Israel and Judah. King Solomon is willing to divide the baby with a sword if that’s what the mothers demand, which will lead to the baby’s death. But the true mother – the one who really loves the baby – will surrender all rights rather than see the baby killed.

That interpretation of the biblical story came to my mind as the play came to a close, because of the last move that the actors make – and they are, briefly, actors again, telling us the story of Brecht’s play. What they do is, they all squeeze into the chalk circle, and the lights go down.

What does that mean? Well, remember, this is 1990 or 1991. The Soviet Union is falling apart. It’s not just that the world is changing – their country is splitting into pieces, formally and legally, and nobody knows where it will stop. Moreover, we now know that their country was about to be pillaged by those best-positioned to take advantage of the post-Communist chaos. The question anyone might ask, casting their minds back into that moment in time, is: who really loves the baby?

Because that’s who they identify with by entering the circle. Not with Grusha, the good mother. With the baby, who doesn’t want to be torn to pieces.

It’s a beautiful, hilarious, and genuinely moving production – and I haven’t even mentioned the lovely original music by Duncan Sheik. Go see it.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle plays at Classic Stage Company through June 23rd.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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