THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith THE FIRST GRADE Reviewed by Jeff Smith BEAUTY OF THE FATHER
THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE
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 www.act-sf.org.
THE FIRST GRADE
Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
The Aurora Theatre Company of Berkeley is presently staging the delightfully dark, but redemptive, comedy THE FIRST GRADE by Joel Drake Johnson.
Anyone who has ever known an Elementary School Teacher with twenty plus years in the cookie crumb trenches knows how such a vet is.
Being accustomed to speaking with diminutive persons equipped naturally with audio processing problems and attention deficit disorders, teachers tend to over articulate even the briefest, least abstract sentence.
Secondly, because Elementary School children have yet to become adept at masking their real selves, Elementary Teachers see everyone as if he or she were as simple, linear and as transparent as a first grader.
Does seeing the world through the lens of a First Grade Teacher provide one with a better handle on life or greater insights?
That's the question writer Joel Johnson and direct Tom Ross vividly answer on the Aurora Stage.
Julia Brothers, as the First Grade Teacher, provides the audience with a character that everyone can appreciate for her honesty, intelligence and expectations and yet ironically no one would want her as a spouse or as a parent: she demands too much objectivity from the people around her and, like a First Grade Teacher, is unwilling to tolerate any forms of self indulgence or monkey business.
Warren David Keith, as the defeated retreating husband: Nat, brilliantly portrays a husband that the audience can universally sympathize with; after all, how does a man live with a woman who makes cookies and then hides them so that no one else can eat them; and who brooks no intimation of human weakness?
Nat, unable to get a divorce fast enough, does what most men would do: adapt: he escapes to a quiet corner of the house, buys scotch in two-liter bottles and sneaks in a passionate mistress.
As the expression goes, vengeance is best served cold or on a queen size mattress.
Were it not for his penchant for ice in his scotch, he could side step Frau Elementary Teacher all together.
Rebecca Schweitzer, as the dysfunctional daughter, gives an equally compelling performance.
What's a daughter to do when she has an overbearing First Grade Teacher as a mother?
Shut down, search for sensual pleasure and oral satisfaction in forbidden cookies, sulk, give off tons of attitude like a squid gives off sepia, and curl convolutedly into the emotional fetal position.
The First Grade Teacher has pretty much destroyed all life at ground zero until a more wretched character: Mora, played superbly by Tina Sanchez dives into the family brew.
THE FIRST GRADE is indisputably a great play: it's entertaining, elevating and enlightening.
Why? Because it's a blend of irony and complexity: it's about adroitness, rectitude and a sober approach to life run amuck and onto the rocks: scotch on the rocks to be specific.
If you are getting a whiff of toxicity in your life, or you just want an intelligent laugh, THE FIRST GRADE is your ticket.
To buy your ticket, call the box office at 510.843.4822 or surf on over to www.auroratheatre.org.
BEAUTY OF THE FATHER
Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre
As Robert Kincaid says in THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, "Rarely does this kind of certainty come around in life."
Rarely is there much certainty in theater: normally, you can enjoy equal security by betting on a Super Bowl Game or by picking a show.
While you can do nothing to improve your Super Bowl odds, you can do several things to improve your odds of picking a winner on stage.
For example: select a play by a Pulitzer Prizing winning playwright like Nilo Cruz.
Second, choose a play that has won a Pulitzer Prize: such as BEAUTY OF THE FATHER.
Third, decide on a rising theater company that in its brief four years as an acting entity, has won several bay area theater critics' awards: like Off Broadway West.
Fourth, pick a show directed by a director who has won bay area theater critics' awards both as a director and as an actor: someone like Richard Harder.
And finally pick a show with an absolutely stunning actress from Alameda, who will dazzle you, enchant you and sling you back in your seat: someone like Natasha Chacon.
Rarely does this much recognized success and promising new talent all converge within an intimate theater like the Phoenix of San Francisco.
Natasha Chacon is the Aspidistra that keeps BEAUTY OF THE FATHER flying.
As an actress, Miss Chacon shows an emotion range that would surpass any reasonable director's expectations.
Much to her credit, Miss Chacon has the ability to credibly breathe contrasting emotions, the tension of opposites, complexity and conflict into her multidimensional character.
Marina grieves for her recently lost mother; is ecstatic to be reunited, after ten years, with her artist father in Spain, and is torn between two continents, two men and two divergent depictions of her father: Emiliano.
Sara Krulwich of the New York Times very accurately describes this play as "A study in emotional fireworks;" the fuse and the pyrotechnics can both be traced to Marina and Miss Chacon.
Great performances by Chris
With such a superlative cast, it is difficult to discern where prudent casting ends and great directing by Richard Harder begins.
If you enjoy intelligent theater that is exotic, romantic, emotional and as richly complex as Catalonian sangria, then BEAUTY OF THE FATHER is not to be missed.
Off Broadway West performs at the Phoenix Theatre,
Tickets may be obtained via www.offbroadwaywest.org or by calling, when not in heavy traffic, 1-800-838-3006.