The Caucasian Chalk Circle

by Richard Dodds

Bay Area Reporter

Thursday March 4, 2010

Omoze Idehenre, center, plays a poor woman on the run who tries to enlist the aid of two wealthy women (Rene Augesen and Caroline Hewitt). Photo: Kevin Berne
Omoze Idehenre, center, plays a poor woman on the run who tries to enlist the aid of two wealthy women (Rene Augesen and Caroline Hewitt). Photo: Kevin Berne  

Enough people have told director John Doyle that his stripped-down versions of Broadway musicals - in which a small ensemble plays multiple roles as well as the musical instruments - are Brechtian that he apparently decided to direct a play by Bertolt Brecht himself. The result is an imaginative, theatrically engaging The Caucasian Chalk Circle at ACT, where Doyle's Sweeney Todd played in 2007.

Brecht's plays, which are in fact quasi-musicals, have always been diversely interpreted, so there are few expectations that Doyle can seriously upend. What he has managed to do is create a production that is distinctively stylized but that also promotes emotional involvement. There are occasional gimmicky lapses, both in the staging and a new translation by Domenique Lozano, but the results are heavily weighted to the positive amid the war-torn set design that Doyle also provided.

The British director began considering creating a production at ACT after he visited the theater during the Sweeney Todd. He has said he particularly liked the feel of the vintage theater - he is usually adverse to the traditional proscenium structure - and was intrigued with developing the production with members of ACT's core acting company and students from its conservatory.

This production of Brecht's 1944 play is indeed a wonderful showcase for five actors from the core company. Most get to play multiple characters with outsized personalities: Rene Augensen, for example, as a kind of gum-smacking mobster's moll and fluttering Blanche DuBois-type; and Gregory Wallace channeling Butterfly McQueen and then playing a kindly farmer. Jack Willis gets his big moment as a corrupt judge, turning it into a burlesque routine, though attempts at audience participation don't pay off. The subtly charismatic Manoel Felciano plays the somber singer-narrator (new music is by Nathaniel Stookey), and ACT regulars Anthony Fusco and Rod Gnapp are seen to good advantage in a succession of roles.

Doyle's staging also puts conservatory students in the spotlight, and they hold their own with their seasoned colleagues. Omoze Idehenre shines in the pivotal role of a peasant girl who rescues a baby abandoned by its rich mother, only to be relentlessly pursued for kidnapping. Her beloved is a soldier solidly played by Nick Childress, who unfortunately is given a confusing bit of business that makes him seem unsure of his lines. Caroline Hewitt completes the able-bodied cast.

The new translation maintains a refreshing naturalism that only stumbles when it tries too hard for the vernacular or an anachronistic joke. Enduring contemporary relevance is built into Brecht's caustic view of self-serving human nature, and you don't need references to Super Glue and "change you can believe in" to make the point.

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The Caucasian Chalk Circle runs through March 14, 2010 at ACT. For more information visit the ACT website.

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