The story is simple enough. It is set in the fictional land of Grusinia in the southern Caucasus region that straddles Europe and Asia (thus "Caucasian"). When the local governor is murdered in a populist uprising, his young wife is forced to flee for her life. Overwhelmed by the task of choosing which gowns to take into exile, she inadvertently leaves behind one tiny thing: her infant son, Michael.
Knowing the boy will be killed by the rebels if found, Grusha — an unwed servant from the governor's household — scoops him up and goes in search of a family to take him in. When she is unable to find a safe place for the child, she raises him as her own for several years.
When peace is finally restored in the region, the governor's wife comes looking for her son. (It seems that Michael, not she, is sole heir to her husband's estate.) Grusha is discovered but refuses to relinquish her claim to the child. The matter ends up in court, in the hands of Azdak, the most unorthodox judge imaginable. He devises a test to settle the case, and it is from that test that the play takes its name.
But while the story is simple, the play is not.
Dragon's production is smart, concise and accessible, featuring several memorable performances and a spare design concept that is applied to all technical elements, from sets and lights to costumes, props and makeup. Director Ana-Catrina Buchser has obviously done her homework, even composing original music (evocative of simple Russian folksongs) for the sung passages in Brecht's script. Fourteen actors play 70-odd parts, and, while they clearly vary widely in their level of experience, there is not the awful sense of unevenness that is found in so much community theater.
In other words, there is nothing glaringly wrong with the show (and much to be praised). Yet the show as a whole feels unsettled, as though it has missed some unseen mark. Which brings us back to Brecht.
In Brecht's view, art was "not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it." His work was unapologetically political, and his communist sympathies are evident in many of his plays ("Chalk Circle" among them).
The primary aim of theater was, for Brecht, to incite critical thinking and debate, to open the public's eyes to the socioeconomic forces that shaped their lives. So he felt that many typical aims of theater — forging emotional connections between characters and audience, or presenting an illusion that viewers would accept as reality — were counter-productive and amounted to pandering and/or escapism.
Instead, Brecht employed devices to keep the audience engaged as thoughtful participants in a dialectic. He had characters address the audience directly, telling parts of their own stories in the third person. He eschewed naturalistic acting in favor of a less emotional, more presentational style. He even argued that actors should hold microphones whenever their characters burst into song, simply to point up the artificial nature of the performance.
In the current Dragon production, director Buchser almost embraces these off-putting stylistic devices, and that may be the problem.
The actors seem generally to understand the presentational nature of the material, yet at other points they attempt to carry self-referential third-person narrative as though it were naturalistic dialogue. In attempting to soften Brecht's intentionally jarring style, Buchser has created something that is not quite at home in either world.
(On the other hand, this might have been a canny choice; many audience members might find a more Brechtian approach less palatable.)
With all that said, several outstanding performances deserve mention. Heidi Kobara has a strong singing voice and an air of command that serve her well in her role as the storyteller. The ever-inventive John Aney is an inescapable comic presence as Azdak. Arcadia Conrad's Grusha is grounded and wholly sympathetic, though lacking a sense of vulnerability that might round out the character nicely.
Also noteworthy are Pilar Alvarez, Elizabeth Finkler (thoroughly enjoyable as a gung-ho "Ironshirt" corporal), and all four of the children in the show.
Although "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" is lighter than many of Brecht's plays, it is still not an easy show to embrace. Nonetheless, there are enough positive elements in Dragon's production to make it a worthwhile theatrical experience.
What: "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," a play by Bertolt Brecht, presented by Dragon Productions Theatre company
Where: Dragon Theatre, 539 Alma St., Palo Alto
When: Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 2 p.m., through Aug. 27
Cost: Tickets are $15 general admission, $10 for students and seniors.
Info: Call the box office at 650-493-2006. For more information, or for ticketing online, go to www.dragonproductions.net.
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