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2014 Spring Issue 8 (June 6, 2014)

50 Years Later, New Production of Caucasian Chalk Circle Isn’t All That Dusty

June 10, 2014
By Jack Noble

Last weekend, under the direction of theater major Julie Leghorn ‘14, fourteen actors took the stage to present Caucasian Chalk Circle by German playwright Bertolt Brecht.
The play originally nested within a frame narrative has a main body detailing the conflict between two Ukrainian communes over a piece of land. The prologue establishes the main portion of the play as a parable meant to inform the dispute. While Leghorn unfortunately cut the commune prologue to perform only the main section, Brecht’s intended anti-realism survives.

That anti-realism provides a blank slate for the exploration of ideology. The plot constructs a Marxist frame -- the duchy weakens from the nobles’ abuse of privilege, eventually falling to a war in which lower classes suffer far more than the rich. (“How varied are the fates of man!” mourns an anonymous villager.) As power passes between the hands of the rich and poor, morality, corruption, and whim inform justice, culminating in the title instrument of justice: the Caucasian Chalk Circle, which is a reference to King Solomon’s judgement. The reviewer is pretty sure they actually drew the circle on the floor.

Leghorn cast the show with composite roles. Each actor assumed several of the 86 roles, and some swapped. For example, many actresses played the role of the young mother, distributing her struggle and thereby archetypifying her character.

A few star actors dominated the stage with their presence. Junior Sam Braslow’s character, Azdak the local village scrivener, dominates the show’s second half. He becomes the drunken philosopher-judge-king, siding on the side of the oppressed in all of Braslow’s glasses-adjusting glory. Braslow has a history of sampling each word like a fine cheese, and shared such eloquent taste the night the reviewer played audience.

Braslow also kept exalted company with Josh Davids ’15. Davids’ collective character was the dominating and creeping male brute -- both a terrible “ironshirt” and a rapacious husband who was thought to be dead. Despite the awfulness of his character, Davids’ acting rivaled Braslow’s for hilarity even given the brevity of the former’s appearances.

Generally, some lines were stumbled or were mumbled, but the cast had no help from Brecht’s convoluted script.

Acting wise, the predominance of background alcohol consumption has been a curious pattern of Players’ and ETB’s shows of late. In longer dialogue scenes, actors, lined up like refugees, passed a hefty wine bottle, heavy-handedly communicating a certain despair.  Like team sports, it’s the off-ball motions that realize a play. Beginner actors have relied extensively on this tired technique this year; hopefully there are more real human moments that our non-speaking actors will explore next year.

With respect to the script, Brecht questions the audience thoroughly. After the revolution, who is to judge, and on what basis? Who cares best for a child? Broadly, the reviewer wonders whether tragicomedies shine light on or make light of such darknesses as war and neglect. Perhaps the question seems hardly an issue to the post-modern audience, so stewed in irony that uncomfortable laughter has been given its own lease on life.

In summation, Leghorn undertook a grand and complex show and succeeded in making it fun. I am glad that she shared a bit of Carleton history with us for her last ETB show. Hers was the fourth production of the show in Carleton history. The first was the world premier (after the U of M decided the show was too red to mount.) Brecht is the reviewer’s favorite kind of artist, the sort whose work tastes like bread that didn’t bake all the way, and a rushed undergrad production, where the audience lights don’t even turn off during the show, seemed a perfectly ugly ideal presentation.

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