Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: APRIL 30, 2010
So, here’s how it’s done. You take a piece of chalk and draw a big circle on the ground. Place the hotly contested child in the center. Then on the outside, put the two women, each claiming maternal rights, each holding an arm of the young boy. At the signal, they both pull, and whoever gets the larger part of the tyke gets to keep him. Reminds you of King Solomon and his two mothers, right? There are other slyly perverted Biblical references in “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” set in the Caucasus area of Russia . But this is the climactic scene. And it’s terrifically done at MiraCosta College , with a delightful element of surprise.
The highly influential play by Bertolt Brecht isn’t mounted that often on local stages. This is one wonderfully imaginative production that will remind you why the 1944 classic remains relevant. It’s not just about motherhood. In his highly charged, unapologetically political work, Brecht was also commenting on the futility of war, the ugliness of capitalistic greed, the great class divide, the inevitability of profiteering and corruption — and the potential for compassion, loyalty and survival, even in the face of a callous and pitiless world.
Director Eric Bishop, chair of the Performing Arts department at Mira Costa, is not afraid to take risks – with plays, puppets or large casts. He’s marshaled two dozen students of varying age, experience and expertise and whipped them into an inventive and informative ensemble. The a capella singing is angelic. The bunraku puppet and giant masks are outstanding. The wildly oversized costumes, stylized makeup, bright-hued lighting, and ingenious set all contribute mightily, as do the techniques of Brazilian theatermaker Augusto Boal , who used bodies as sculpture. Here, the cast forms a bridge that helps a young girl escape her pursuers.
That’s really the main story: When enemy forces invade the city, the Governor is captured and his vain, self-absorbed wife flees without taking their only child. The baby is rescued by the servant, Grusha , who risks everything to protect him. She’s even forced to legitimize him by marrying a dying man, betraying her betrothed, a soldier who’s off at war. Meanwhile, back in the city, Azdak , a drunk, philosophizing clerk, becomes a judge and dispenses an amusingly idiosyncratic brand of Robin Hood justice. At last, thanks to the explanations and transitions of the singing narrator, the two stories intertwine, when Grusha , along with the Governor’s wife, is brought before Azdak to decide the fate of the boy. It all comes full circle at the end, literally and figuratively.
The central characters are excellently portrayed, and the entire historically significant enterprise is provocative, inspiring and invigorating.
“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” runs through May 2, at Mira Costa College in Oceanside .
©2010 PAT LAUNER