"Keep to the middle of the war" is the cautious advice of the heroine of Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" to her soldier-lover, "Stay near the flag."
Artists have also considered that central point safer. But Brecht preferred the edges of the tapestry, where smaller figures can be discovered in activities less predictable and more interesting than the clashes of kings in the middel. When a mighty house falls, as the play's narrator say, "They share in the misfortunes." His aristocrats are so simple that their servants "even have to do their crying for them," but his background figures come reluctantly forward and achieve nobility.
Arena Stage has given this play such a rich production that it sold revolutionary banners look crisp and fresh. There's not much open opposition now to the ideas that war is hardest on the poor and that the people who work the soil should share in its yield. But such a beautiful show of strength is used here to make these points that they become awesome.
The play, loosely based on a Chinese legend, is the story of two shrewd peasants who give in to "the terrible temptation to do good." Grusha, Brecht's quintessential strong woman, finds herself unable to abandon a baby even if he is a prince with a price on his head; Azdak, perhaps Brecht's greatest character, is unable to keep from dispensing common sense even though he has the good sense to know better.
The actors are magnificent, Christine Estabrook's struggle with a doll that represents the baby pulling on her braid to stop her from leaving would qualify a Japanese puppeteer to be declared a National Treasure. Robert Prosky, in a part that's usually cut severely because anedote upon anecdote is used to establish the contradictions of an honorably dissipated judge, has made every moment valuable, to show the humor of wisdom and the wisdom of humor.
But because it's an epic tapestry, one can look anywhere to see fine, careful work - in minor parts, in the complex use of rice-mat sets, in the scale of sounds from fine music to running water, and most of all in director Martin Fried's having made from it all one closely woven work of art.