By: David Sheward
At first, Brian Kulick’s Classic Stage Company production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bertolt Brecht’s classic of downtrodden peasants overcoming the upper classes, is just a bit too precious. The audience enters set designer Tony Straiges’s disheveled environment suggesting an abandoned theater in Russia during one of its many political upheavals.
The program describes the setting as "Ancient Grusinia but also perhaps the fall of the Soviet Union, when the hammer and the sickle were replaced by the Coca-Cola bottle." The cast, playing a band of wandering actors, shuffles in speaking Russian, has a few comic mishaps with the lighting and sound, and then explains to the audience in heavily-accented English that the actors are presenting a fable of Grusha, a servant girl who impulsively adopts the baby abandoned by her wealthy mistress during a revolution. This reality-versus-illusion gambit appears to approximate Brecht’s famous alienation effect, wherein the viewers are made aware they are watching a play and are forced to consider the issues raised without sentiment for the characters.
Later in the play, audience members are recruited to play extras at a wedding scene and, in an embarrassing sing-along, moan the word oh in an exaggerated, "sad" Russian manner. Fortunately, these forced bits are kept to a minimum. When Grusha’s tale gets going, Kulick’s direction becomes engaging. After she has committed to adopting the baby and protecting it from marauding rebels, Grusha sacrifices everything for him, even her engagement to the soldier Simon. Following many adventures, she is forced to battle for her charge with the kid’s biological mother in a trial presided over by the peasant-made-magistrate Azdak. Even though the child is portrayed by a puppet, the emotions conveyed by the human cast create the Pinocchio-like illusion he is real.
The idiomatic translation by James and Tania Stern, along with pithy lyrics by the poet W.H. Auden and soulful original music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening), make the tale compelling. Things only slow down when Kulick interrupts with those audience-participation sequences.
The action is largely propelled by Elizabeth A. Davis, who lends Grusha a fierce intensity in spoken and sung scenes, as well as when she plays the violin. Christopher Lloyd endows the other main character, Azdak, with a rascally cunning, but the Taxi veteran appeared not to have mastered all the lines in this massive role, and his otherwise rich performance was marred by hesitancy. Mary Testa, Tom Riis Farrell, Jason Babinsky, Deb Radloff, and Alex Hurt have individual moments to shine in their multiple characterizations. This is an almost full and satisfying Circle, only broken when the director attempts to draw his own lines rather than allowing Brecht to complete it.
May 30-June 23. Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., NYC. Tue-Wed 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $60-65. (866) 811-4111. www.ovationtix.com