THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE Theater Review
It’s Karl Marx meets the Marx Brothers in Antaeus Theatre Company’s adaption of Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 play The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Brecht, who wrote The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage, is best known for his leftwing agitprop. But many forget what Antaeus wisely remembers - while the German playwright may have been a master polemicist and propagandist (often against the master race) Brecht also had a caustic wit which reaches new heights of Marxist mirth in this production at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center.
Playing the humor up serves this two-act, two hour and 15-ish minute work well, as it makes Brecht’s biting observations about the wealthy, the judiciary, war, etc., more palatable.
Playing the humor up serves this two-act, two hour and 15-ish minute work well, as it makes Brecht’s biting observations about the wealthy, the judiciary, war, etc., more palatable. Before ticket buyers even take their seats inside the theater Chalk kicks off in, shall we say, a very Brechtian way. This pre-curtain lifter reminded me of a stellar version of Brecht’s The Mother performed in the 1980s, directed by Australian Dennis Carroll: As theatergoers showed up outside the University of Hawaii’s theater actors garbed as guards or Cossacks “roughed up” spectators, jostling them with prop rifles and the like - which really put us in the mood for this Russian Revolution drama.
Chalk’s first act sets the story, such as there is, up. Viewers are sometimes let down after an Act I that creates great expectations, but in this Chalk the second act does have a rewarding payoff that’s well worth waiting for in this witty saga of war, class struggle and more set in Gruzinia in what is now called “Georgia.” (No, not the Southern state where Gone with the Wind took place, but the former Soviet Republic where the Caucasus Mountains are located, Stalin was born and is today an independent nation.)
The Antaeus adapters have removed an original plot point about Georgian collective farms and have added much to Brecht’s play. There are repeat references to “war in Iran” - to be sure, in Brecht’s dialogue Azdak (Steve Hofvendahl, a vet of the N.Y. stage, Antaeus and other theaters) recounts an uprising in “Persia,” but this production updates Brecht’s work with an eye on current affairs. Similarly, a lynch mob’s cries to “String Him Up” drolly refer to that anti-Hillary war whoop at Trump rallies to “Lock Her up!”
In remarks made by David Gindler at the reception following Chalk’s premiere, the philanthropist noted that Antaeus’ troupe composed the music they performed in this play, which is presented with one intermission. It’s tricky business when latter day transmuters alter source material, something which can often misfire or backfire. For instance, in 2018 Antaeus’ stage adaptation of Native Son completely eliminated one of the key characters in Richard Wright’s 1940 novel - Boris Max, the lawyer who defended Bigger Thomas and belonged to the Communist Party-affiliated legal organization called the Labor Defenders. For some reason, the so-so HBO movie version of Native Son that was screened in 2019 also omitted Boris Max (who seems to have been renamed Paul Max in the 1941 Broadway rendition that starred Canada Lee and was directed by the inimitable Orson Welles).
I have a suggestion for would-be ba(sta)rds who wish to tamper with original creations such as by liquidating essential dramatic personae who were created by dead authors now no longer able to defend their literary rights: Why don’t you be original and just create your own work, instead of being the artistic equivalent of grave robbers, stealing from the dead without their approval?
Having said that I enjoyed the changes Antaeus brought to Brecht, which, it seemed to me, amplified and enhanced his point of view. This is a fine example of a contemporary company breathing new life into a work now three quarters of a century old, and making it more accessible to a modern audience. Indeed, for The Caucasian Chalk Circle Brecht himself adapted a 14th century play by the Chinese playwright Li Xingdao, and made a crucial change in order to better render his philosophical point regarding class and which is more important: Nature or nurture?
Antaeus’ large cast of about 16 players is quite lively and enjoyable. Standouts include Noel Arthur, who is funny in multiple roles, including as the Fat Prince and First Lawyer. If you watch ensemble member Gabriela Bonet closely you’ll see that in her multiple parts she exudes a sly sense of humor that is enjoyable to behold. The protean Madalina Nastase likewise rather ably and nimbly slips in and out of her various characters, including at one point playing a horse (Namaste Nastase!).
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Hofvendahl is part King Solomon, part-Kojak, as Azdak, the judge who dispenses Solomonic wisdom. The title of Brecht’s play is derived from Azdak’s judicious judicial ruling and is one of those names of works that is very resonant, like William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.
Stephanie Shroyer adroitly directs the sometimes manic mise-en-scène. A vignette visualizing a stream composed of writhing human bodies is especially inventive and striking. Scenic designer Frederica Nascimento’s mobile sets and Angela Calin’s costuming, which ranges from realistic to whimsical, all enhance Chalk’s amiable ambiance.
Brecht wrote Chalk while he was a refugee from Nazi Germany, living in exile at Santa Monica. As the Trump regime unleashes I.C.E. raids on undocumented immigrants, we should remember and reflect upon the America that gave asylum seekers such as Brecht, Fritz Lang and that Austrian Jew Billy Wilder refuge in “the land of the free.” Here, safe from Hitler’s brownshirts Brecht could write his parable about what he ironically called “Ironshirts” in Chalk. And of course, lawn mowers and gardeners fleeing oppression are as worthy of sanctuary as screenwriters, playwrights and directors.
But we should also recall that “other” USA which, only three years after Brecht penned Chalk, summoned the anti-fascist escapee to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee along with the Hollywood Ten. On Oct. 30, 1947 like a latter-day Galileo Brecht was interrogated by HUAC inquisitors, including chief investigator/ Torquemada Robert Stripling, who asked the German leftist the $64,000 question: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party…?” Unlike his North American counterparts in the Hollywood Ten, Brecht was an immigrant and not a U.S. citizen, and he replied:
“…I have heard my colleagues when they considered this question not as proper, but I am a guest in this country and do not want to enter into any legal arguments, so I will answer your question… I was not a member, or am not a member, of any Communist Party.”
At the end of his testimony the HUAC chairman thanked Brecht and called him “a good example to the witnesses” of the Hollywood Ten, who’d refuse to confirm or deny whether they’d belonged to the Communist Party. Of course, immediately after testifying before HUAC, Brecht pulled his most hilarious joke ever: The man who’d fled Nazi Germany and other European countries as the stormtroopers invaded, and was aboard the last ship out of Vladivostok in June 1941 as the fascists moved into the USSR, now ran away from “democratic” America and resettled in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), where he established the Berliner Ensemble.
Call Bertolt Brecht “the Hollywood Eleventh” and call Antaeus’ production of his play written 75 years ago and about 25 miles west of Glendale an epic good time. Chalk is a highly entertaining romp mixing comedy, action and politics to concoct a morsel of merry madcap Marxist mayhem.
Antaeus Theatre Company’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is being performed Fridays and Saturdays and Mondays (except July 15) at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through August 26 at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale, CA 91205. For info and tickets: (818)506-1983.
Ed Rampell is a Los Angeles-based critic and film historian. The third edition of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book, which he co-authored, is now available here.