Arena Stage's production of Bertolt Brecht's "Caucasian Chalk Circle" is like nothing so much as a three-dimensional storybook, set in some unnameable faraway land that is all faraway lands, a pan-national folk festival in which the playwright's tale of motherhood and treachery is but one element of a richly theatrical whole.
Director Tazewell Thompson and his brilliant costume designer, Paul Tazewell, have drawn from such a variety of sources -- as did the playwright -- that one can only imagine a pile of National Geographics getting serious use during the conceptual process. Although nominally located in the Russian Caucasus, there are (or seem to be) visual and aural references to China, India, Mongolia, Africa, the West Indies, Polynesia; there are Moslem chadors and Christian crosses, half masks, puppet heads, temple bells, a synthesizer and generic peasants in coarsely woven clothing and work boots. The cast includes blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics, as does the production team.
It works because there is so much. Confronted with so many images, one must abandon urges to define and simply accept the stew for what it is, a never-never land that exists only within the confines of the Arena's four-sided stage.
And if the content of this story seems subordinate to the telling of it, that may be all for the better. Written in 1944 (intended as a Broadway vehicle for Luise Rainer, a startling plan that never came off), the play is one of Brecht's less preachy works. By that time he had decided that plays could be entertaining as well as instructive. While his Marxism may now seem almost quaint in the current political climate, Brecht's broad swipes at corrupt rulers, selfish peasants and poseurs of all classes are still satisfying fodder.
Based on a Chinese fable, the story traces the fortunes of Grusha (Gail Grate, in a simple, straightforward performance), a servant who rescues the abandoned infant of the governor, and Azdak (Lewis J. Stadlen), a rough-hewn scribe who is washed up as a judge in one of the many political flash floods that course throughout the play. The first act is Grusha's, the second Azdak's, climaxing at the end when their lives converge and he decides the fate of the child she has come to consider her own.
Grusha's story begins with the violent overthrow of the governor and subsequent mass fleeing of the populace. (The prologue, which is set in yet another place and has to do with a dispute between two Soviet collectives, was cut in the final days of rehearsal. It was not missed.) Grusha, recalling an ancient proverb (this play is full of proverbs, ancient and otherwise) that says a person who "does not hear a cry for help ... will never hear again the hushed call of her lover," takes up the infant and sets out for the mountain farm of her brother. Along the way she is forced out of an inn by two rich ladies (Tana Hicken and Halo Wines in a hilarious turn), clobbers a soldier looking for the baby, climbs mountains in the snow, and goes hungry, cold and wet. Her brother turns out to be a wimp, her sister-in-law a bitch, and she ends up marrying a draft dodger instead of her long-lost soldier love.
Azdak, too, lives a life of peril after the revolution, but when he, through a fluke, achieves power, he wields it with glee, soaking the wealthy petitioners for payoffs and making rulings that are off the wall but not off the mark. He scolds a doctor for failing to charge a complaining patient, reminding him that "a good doctor must have a sense of financial responsibility." He acquits a laborer of a false charge of rape after determining the victim was more than compliant.
When he must decide who should get the child, the woman who has raised him or the biological mother who wants him for his primogeniture, he draws a circle on the floor and places the child within it. He announces that both women should take one of the child's hands and pull; the stronger will be the child's mother. Obviously, the one who really loves him is the one who refuses to rip him in two, and the decision is made.
Brecht uses motherhood in this play as a metaphor, not as reality. For the better part of the performance, the child is a stuffed doll; he has no weight, he never cries, and the gritty demands of maternal love are not portrayed. Motherhood is instead a symbol for goodness, a plot device to demonstrate Grusha's humble purity and fidelity to noble human values in the face of her fellows' ignominy. Other productions have made more of the maternal issue, mining it for sentimentality. In this one, in keeping with the folk tale quality that is centermost, Grate cradles the rag doll with the recognizable posture but without the desperate yearning a mother might feel.
Director Thompson does not lead us into emotional byways; this "Chalk Circle" appeals to the senses and the intellect but not necessarily to feelings. This is a fable told in an appealing style: When Grusha must cross the abyss on a frail footbridge, the bridge is made from a shadow, the danger by the actors and the sound. The wind is pieces of white silk and horses are conjured from bamboo headdresses. The cudgels look real, but the blows are not. A 6-year-old represents a 2-year-old, and it all seems perfectly consistent.
Thompson's interpretation of the narrator, played by Jane White with a kind of Lotte Lenya-like elegance and world weariness, is the only capricious choice. She seems, with her deep, accented voice and slicked-back short hair, a refugee from "Cabaret" or "Victor, Victoria" rather than part of this Museum of Folk Art production.
Stadlen's Azdak is full-bodied and vigorous, fueled by irreverence and impudence (although his lapsing into New Yorkese at times is unnecessary self-indulgence). Indeed, all the actors draw their characters in bold, graphic strokes, with Jurian Hughes as the snooty governor's wife, Jarlath Conroy as Grusha's brother and Azdak's sidekick, Tony Carlin as the soldier-lover, Tana Hicken as Grusha's mean mother-in-law, Saul Stein as her well-built son, Socorro Santiago as the buxom Ludovika and Ralph Cosham and Terrence Currier as the crooked doctors, architects and lawyers. Grate, as Grusha, is less than charismatic, but that may be best for the production as a whole.
Fabian V. Obispo Jr.'s music is atonal and non-melodic, for the most part, which is what people expect with Brecht. Aside from the tender and pretty love songs, it functions more as punctuation than as commentary. Loy Arcenas designed the set, which consists basically of a wooden floor with a number of trapdoors from which characters can emerge and into which they can disappear.
When Brecht wrote this play, World War II still raged. When it was first staged in 1947, he was headed for an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee and departure from the United States to yet another temporary home. In 1961, when Arena first produced the play, the echoes of the McCarthy era could still be heard, and the manifestations of the Cold War resonated on the stage.
Were Brecht alive today, he would no doubt be intrigued by the changes in Eastern Europe, by sociological events like the Baby M case and by the random fate that sees an Afghan war survivor killed in a convenience store in Fairfax County. He would have been intrigued, and he wouldn't have had to change a word of "The Caucasian Chalk Circle."
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Ralph Manheim. Directed by Tazewell Thompson. Music, Fabian V. Obispo Jr.; set, Loy Arcenas; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Nancy Schertler; musical direction, George Fulginiti-Shakar. With Terrence Currier, Ralph Cosham, Henry Strozier, Halo Wines, Teagle F. Bougere, Gail Grate, Tana Hicken, Jarlath Conroy, Jane White, Jurian Hughes, Saul Stein, Jeffery V. Thompson, Tony Carlin, Socorro Santiago, Thomas Ikeda and Michael W. Howell. At Arena Stage through Oct. 28.