THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith



Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle


Domenique Lozano's recent translation of Bertolt Brecht's THE CAUSCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE is currently being performed, as directed by John Doyle, at the American Conservatory Theater of San Francisco.


An important ingredient in film making is set: whether it be the location or some contrived backdrop for the action; in theatre location is not optional: set is.


In theatre, the elaborateness of the backdrop or the set design is arbitrary: it is a tug-of-war between the director, the set designer and the imagination of the audience.


As the set designer and director respectfully bow to the imaginative powers of the audience, theater moves away from the film making concept and towards the domain of storytelling.


Director John Doyle is clearly a storyteller: the program identifies no set designer: the minimalist symbols: tokens of when and where the action takes place, are the work of MR Doyle: an artist who trusts in the imagination of his audience to conjure a virtual setting.


THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE is the third or fourth evolution of an idea.


The idea seems to have surfaced first with the WISDOM OF SOLOMON (circa 930 b.c.e.) when King Solomon decreed that a disputed infant be cut in half so that the two women, equally convincing in their claims to be its mother, would have a fair share of the child.


The concept may have resurfaced independently in a 14th century Chinese play: LI QIANFU by Li Xingdoa, and again in 1925 as THE CIRCLE OF CHALK by Alfred Henschke (a.k.a. Klabund).


Klabund's play was expropriated by Brecht in 1940 and recast as a short story: THE AUGSBURG CHALK CIRCLE.


In 1944, Brecht, mindful of the talents of émigré actress Luise Rainer, brought CHALK CIRCLE to its present incarnation: a form which, in the words of Harold Clurman, is designed to ". . . liberate the spirit without drugging the senses . . . " and impart ". . . wisdom rather than excitement."


As the curtain rises, Grusche, a servant of the Grand Prince, rescues the son of the Prince, when the infant son's preoccupied mother flees the capital city: paying more attention to her luggage than to her child.


Grusche rescues the child, greatly augmenting the survival challenges she already faces.


In the eyes of the law, her rescue is tantamount to a kidnapping.


Typical of Brecht's lavish use of contradiction, paradox, irony and the collision of opposites, Grusche's decision to save the child gives her far greater survival challenges but fortifies her with a sustaining raison d'être.


Omoze Idehenre is extraordinary: she gives us a Grusche that is leather tough on the outside, sinewy strong, and vulnerably human and maternal in the inside.


Rene Augesen, gets a comedic lift by approximating the blonde joke stereotype: she is a riot as Natella: Wife of Governor Georgi Abashvili and ditzy mother of the infant Michael.


Natella would be better named Nutella: she is the archetypal bourgeois materialist who could let her fur collection interfere with providing safety for her infant.


Rod Gnapp, indisputably one the bay area's finest actors, is smartly embedded at the very core of this delightful ensemble piece; Rod has a way of covering the entire turf that runs between martinet and marionette; as a soldier, Rod has a comical delivery that has the audience speculating as to whether his character lacks compassion, a conscience or just native intelligence.


As the East German Government always suspected, Bertolt Brecht is a classicist: a master at depicting the rival complexities of life.


CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE runs through March 14th.


For tickets call 415.749.2228 or grab the mouse and surf on over to