It takes a lot to split me from Brecht, but The Caucasian Chalk Circle being put on now by the Constellation Theatre Company manages to do it.
Germany’s most irascible exiled playwright occupies such a large, sweetly nostalgic place in my personal history, I’ll dance with him any day of the week. The melody’s all wrong, however, over at Source Theatre. And someone keeps stepping on your metaphorical toes.
Let’s start with the set, because they sure as shit did. Source’s black box-plus has been retrofitted into some truly impressive shapes over the years, but for this touted “immersive 360°” experience, all is night. Some audience members sit surrounded by the stage, others sit apart, but all around the views are coal-dark and covered in patchy, also-quite-black artificial grass. It looks like a underground tavern so filthy it’s been allowed to grow two-inch mold, or perhaps like the putting green on hell’s own golf course (“Yes, it’s tricky par-5 here on the socialist fable hole…”).
Don’t take the sponge-painting on the wall for granted, though, because the texture ends there. Bertolt Brecht’s dirty little secret as a writer is, for all his violent use of symbol and archetype, he loves people, particularly the foolishly selfless, with all his heart. This “epic theatre” production forgets — or simply doesn’t know how — to walk that line. There’s no humanity here.
As directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, Constellation’s Chalk Circle, going on now until May 13, feels like part school play, part antiquated ritual. In the midst of a messy revolution, the servant girl Grusha (Yesenia Inglesias is sweet, but she got more done with a smaller role in last year’s Arabian Nights) snatches up the infant child of the murdered governor and takes to the mountains in flight. There she encounters a host of characters both savory and kind, poor and aristocratic, as she seeks to keep little Michael safe and eventually reunite with her warrior fiancé. Soldiers mean trouble. Farmers are friendly, but unreliable. The episodic journey structure brings to mind The Odyssey, but of course there are no gods or monsters involved. Every actor whom I recognized I’ve liked more in other things.
However disappointing the show is as a play, however, it’s worse as a musical. Whenever you think things can’t get worse, our minstrel narrator shows up with a Russian fur hat and a guitar to tell you stuff you either don’t need to know or could easily see for yourself. Normally, tiny bands of talented musicians are Source’s ace in the hole, but this score is all bluff.
Oh and dear god: The puppets. Another typical Source strength deserts us. The child Michael is presented as first a babe-in-arms and later as a toddler, both with crab-apple faces, menacing little hands, and pure black eyes that will haunt your nightmares. I actually saw audience members shrinking back when he got too close.
The title character of Brecht’s most famous play, Mother Courage and her Children, sees her children sacrificed to the bloody wheels of war and capitalism. Chalk Circle is in many ways the opposite story: Grusha emerges from the war with a child that wasn’t hers to begin with. It might not be entirely optimistic, but has kindness inside it. Constellation’s production feels hollow, and with an obsidian-dark shell, like a rotten walnut.
Feature photo Yesenia Iglesias, Teresa Spencer (Matthew Schleigh in background on chair) in The Caucasian Chalk Circle courtesy of Constellation Theatre Company, photos by Daniel Schwartz