Brecht’s ‘Chalk Circle’ updated by Ellipsis Theatre
ANN ARBOR—Staging Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle on and around Mother’s Day shows good timing by Ellipsis Theatre.
Act One is a meditation on motherhood. It shows the woman most worthy to be called mother is she who demonstrates compassion, care and commitment to the child, despite personal sacrifices.
These characteristics trump the entitlement of a materialistic biological mother who “forgets” her baby while fleeing (with her wardrobe and hot water bottle) a political uprising. Indeed, the birth mother doesn’t try to reclaim the child until two years later, when it’s clear she needs him – heir to her disposed husband’s fortune – to secure her own future.
“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” also works on another level that suggests justice is more likely to result from morality than the following of laws. Indeed, laws may need to bend for justice to be served.
Moreover, Brecht shows, in Act Two, that even a despicable person who has no preparation for administering laws – and whose rise to power is the punch line to a joke – can be capable of rising to the occasion and rendering a just verdict. This is an insight that some will find ironically reassuring, given today’s political climate.
Ellipsis’s production holds true to Brecht’s minimalist style. The intimate Nova “yellow barn” theatre is like a black box. The stage for this play is defined by weathered cinderblocks, many of them broken, and a falling down chain-link fence. The set seems to be a junkyard with a rusted out motorcycle, bicycle, burn barrel, empty paint cans, a tractor tire, a wheelbarrow and a gasoline can that looks like it’s been in service since the 1960s.
Through the play, that single, sparse set seems to morph. For example, the tractor tire is first the baby’s crib, then a bridge buttress, then a boat. The wheelbarrow is first a trunk holding the birth mother’s silk dresses, then the judge’s bench in court of law. The various cans and drums become the percussion section, supporting actors playing guitar, ukulele, accordion and trumpet.
For a play that doesn’t officially have a musical score, the music in this production of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” is a highlight.
There are a lot of characters in this play, but directors Joanna Hastings and Scott Screws get a lot of mileage out of their eight member ensemble, which features them both in leading roles.
Hastings plays the colorfully clad “Storyteller,” who a government official brings to the scene of a land dispute to tell a parable he hopes will help opposing parties agree on a path forward. Ellipsis Theater updates Brecht’s Marxist premise about land ownership to an environmental concern: Should an oil pipeline be constructed over land that could be important for agriculture?
Hasting’s Storyteller arrives with a trunk of hats and a bolt of white cloth. Members of the ensemble instantaneously change roles, often signaled by the changing of a hat. The cloth that is stretched across the stage to suggest a glacier in Act One, is rolled out again in Act Two as a river.
The play seamlessly is revealed in front of the audience and all comes together, which is high praise because – at first blush, Act Two seems to have nothing to do with Act One. Hastings’ Storyteller is the glue whose narrations —with annotations and connotations — builds a powerful story.
A standout in the cast is Lucy Price, whose five roles include Grusha, a domestic worker in the governor’s mansion at the time of revolution, who rescues the left behind baby of her beheaded employer and spirits him away to safety, eventually claiming the boy is her son.
Kylie Stidham is also delicious as the Governor’s money grabbing wife and biological mother of the child. Stidham plays eight roles in all.
Scott Screws gets most of the laughs in his portrayal of Adzak, a corrupt clerk with a weakness for shapely women, a drinking problem and a passion for making speeches containing only wisps of logic. Adzak is appointed judge by the military (Ironshirts) during a coup d’teat and the circumstances of his appointment foretell the irony of his tenure.
He has an air of judiciousness, but his biases are obvious.
But when the matter of whether Grusha or the fallen Governor’s wife is the toddler’s “rightful” mother is brought before him – a case with crucial political ramifications — Adzak devises a test called the Caucasian Chalk Circle which helps him achieve a just decision.