On the surface, The Caucasian Chalk Circle seems to be nothing more than a traditional comedy, where two lovers are separated by external forces, and are eventually reunited.
But Bertolt Brecht’s script is more than that—it is marked with extensive turmoil, injustice, and violence. It discusses family, class, and justice in a time of civil war. No character is what they seem on the surface. What may seem as self-serving is later revealed to be a by-product of the unjust political system, while good selfless deeds are also extremely foolish actions. Directed by ted witzel, what makes The Caucasian Chalk Circle different is its satirical take on the plot.
The play begins with a look at the Governor Georgi Abashwili’s (Spencer Bennet) lavish lifestyle. Accompanied by his wife (Victoria Dennis), security, and his newborn child Michael, it is immediately clear that the Governor is not a kind leader, nor is he a man of the people. This is made obvious when the Governor’s wife expresses her joy at the construction of a new garden, at the expense of clearing out a shanty part of the town.
We are also introduced to the two lovers: Gruscha, a lowly maid working in the kitchens (Alma Sarai) and the soldier Simon (Brett Houghton). The audience is treated to several minutes of painfully embarrassing flirting as Simon attempts to tell, using repeated clichés, that he has watched Gruscha as she undresses by the stream while she does her laundry. Simon is besotted with Gruscha, but the feeling doesn’t seem to be mutual.
As the Governor’s security forcibly separates the commoners apart from members of nobility, the Fat Prince (John Wamsley) strolls in, munching on a packet of Cheetos, and cryptically comments on the ongoing war with Iran. The Prince even offers a Kinder egg to the newborn child—which is dismissed by the Governor’s wife, to the audience’s laughter, as a “choking hazard.”
It doesn’t take the sharpest mind to realise that the Fat Prince has ill intentions towards the Governor and his family. In fact, almost immediately, the Fat Prince orchestrates a coup and has the Governor executed.
Throughout the play, commentary is provided by the Singer (Bryn Kennedy). She is not a static narrator, but instead moves around the set, holding symbolic items (such as set of scales) and occasionally interacting with characters. The play is also studded with appearances from Ethel (Katie McDonald) and Eugene (Gabe Golin), an elderly couple who provide comedic relief through their constant arguments. Eugene constantly references his impending death (“I don’t even buy green bananas!”) and is not scared of a fight (“Try me, bitch” is his response to a particularly violent soldier).
Following the Governor’s death, the palace is in disarray.
Despite the fear and urgency in the scene, our two lovers meet once more. Following another painful round of flirting, Simon drops to one knee and successfully proposes to Gruscha. Despite Gruscha’s insistence, Simon then leaves to do his duty as a soldier, making another set of vague statements and promises to meet with Gruscha at her brother’s farm.
In the palace, the Governor’s wife is a mess. However, it’s not concern for her husband that is troubling her, but what clothing she needs to survive. The scene is brought to a standstill as the characters slowly realise that the town is on fire. The Governor’s wife then flees the scene without her baby Michael.
At this point, all the servants abandon the palace—excluding Gruscha, who cannot ignore her maternal instincts. Her fear for Michael’s survival overpowers her and she resigns herself to the role of being his “temporary” mother.
This marks the beginning of Gruscha’s journey. On the surface, this is what the play is about: Gruscha becoming a mother. We watch her as she slowly treks along the road to her brother’s farm and attempts to take care of the newborn child, despite the apparent danger of raising a child who is on the Fat Prince’s hit-list.
However, it is slightly disturbing to watch Gruscha sacrifice everything for Michael. She repeatedly puts the baby first, a sentiment best portrayed by her entering a loveless marriage. witzel summarises this best in his program guide, by stating, “Today, reading Gruscha as a sucker has become even more difficult as the cult of motherhood in western capitalism has grown—we laud and applaud the sight of a woman putting herself in danger to save a helpless child […]. I think Brecht is asking us to question the logic of that supposed moral imperative.”
The same biological imperative is raised and questioned in the closing scenes of the play, where Gruscha is forced to state why she should receive custody of the baby, and not the Governor’s wife, who is the true biological mother.
In the end, Azdak, the cynical judge (Jack Comerford), places the child in the centre of a chalk circle, and states that the mother who can pull the child out of the circle first will win custody. Hence the title. (Spoiler alert: Gruscha cannot bear to hurt her child and fails the test; but in doing so, she wins custody of Michael.)
On a different note, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Brecht’s script is littered with instances of violence, rape culture, and sexual assault. For example, at one point Gruscha was overpowered by a soldier, and likely would have been raped if it weren’t for her quick actions. During her loveless marriage, Gruscha’s husband is angered by her refusal to not engage in sexual intercourse and states that “a woman is for weeding the fields and spreading her legs.”
These violent actions are inflicted on various female characters. A particularly compelling example occurs in the play’s second act, which revolved around Azdak. The cynical judge is a misogynist, takes bribes in court, and repeatedly flaunts two hookers on his lap (Emily Thorne and Lauren Wolanski). At one point in court, Azdak asks the victim Ludowika (Sarah Hime) to bend over and pick up a drink from the ground. Azdak notices her voluptuous figure and immediately rules in favour of the male defendant, stating that she must have led him on with her body to commit assault.
But this is where the play pauses, and Hime drops the role of her character to give a soliloquy commenting on the rampant misogyny and rape culture present in Brecht’s script. Hime ended her speech with an eloquent “fuck Brecht.”
I could go on for another thousand words about the play’s many strengths (such as the use of a revolving stage to indicate time, the carefully presented backstory for Azdak and the many vivid, supporting characters) and humorous one-liners, but sadly, this is not the space for that.
Overall, while The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a slightly cringeworthy romance, it delivered brilliantly in terms of satire, moral commentary and comedy. In fact, the play focused less on the love between Gruscha and Simon, and instead explored, very intensely, a cast of flawed characters and their actions within a tyrannical land.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle ran until last Sunday, November 6.