Christopher Lloyd (right) as the corrupt and drunken but wise in his lunatic fashion judge Azdak, prepares to deliver one of his signature logically twisted verdicts while his dim but faithful bailiff (Tim Riis Farrell) looks on as if it all makes perfect sense in Classic Stage Company’s Chekhovian---think Star Trek not The Three Sisters---production of Bertholt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
I wonder how much longer Soviet Era Boris and Natasha-We Inwented It First Russian accents will be funny.
Long enough for Classic Stage Company’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle to complete its run, that’s for certain, which is good for Moose and Squeeril and for humans lookink for amoosink and movink night out at theater. The central conceit from which the comedy arises in this rambunctious staging of Bertholt Brecht’s retelling of the Judgment of Solomon is that a provincial troupe of Russian actors has somehow wandered its way from Minsk circa 1958 onto the stage of CSC’s East Village theater circa right now, cheerfully determined to perform despite an extremely tight budget, uncertain abilities, and a generally blissful obliviousness to their own ridiculousness.
When they are “performing,” they speak perfect English, but when various minor emergencies interrupt the “play”---blown fuses, blown lines, missing props, missing actors---and force the “actors” to “break character” and, routinely, break the fourth wall, they talk to each other in Russian---or maybe “Russian.” As far as I could tell, they actors playing the “actors” might have gone to the Sid Caesar School of Languages---and talk to us, the audience, in heavy accents that make them sound like Chekhov---Pavel not Anton---inquiring the way to the nookleer wessels in Star Trek IV.
If you’re like me and think that’s one of the funniest moments in all of Star Trek or, again like me, remember fondly the Wendy’s ad from the 80s showing a Soviet fashion show in which one singularly stern and unglamorous model keeps appearing on the runway in the same utilitarian gray outfit a uniformed announcer calls by a different name each time out---“Day Vear.” “Evenink Vear.” “Sveem Vear.”---this will crack you up all night.
Please to not geet wrong idea, comrades. Funny accents and a few comically-timed small-scale explosions are far from the whole of things.
Many productions of Brecht’s plays are all about the amusing and entertaining ways their directors have decided to deal with one of the dreariest concepts of 20th Century theater as I learned about it in college: that Brechtian means making sure the audience is never allowed to forget they’re watching a play and that what’s happening on stage isn’t real so that they don’t get caught up in their own emotions instead of attending to the ideas being theatrically illustrated and develop sympathy for the characters as if they were people and not just stand-ins for whatever intellectual concepts the playwright intended them to represent.
I’ve never seen this work the way my professors said it was supposed to, because it doesn’t take into account that audiences are people and people have the imaginative capacity to accept all kinds of realities, separately and all at once, including ones in which a broken line of suitcases stands in for a rickety bridge over a mountain gorge and a puppet sharing the stage with live human beings becomes the emotional focus and the heart of the story and the actors in the play are at once themselves and the “actors” they are playing and the characters those “actors” are playing.
Director Brian Kulick and his company of young players and wily veterans led by a growling, skulking, shambling, scratching, galumphing, grinning, cowering, clamoring, leering, lurching, laughing, roaring, rascally Christopher Lloyd approach the clowning with an economical if not always light touch. Their intent seems to be to use the alienating devices not to deflect our feelings but to protect them, as if, if the cast didn’t gentle and jolly us along and occasionally interrupt things just for the sake of a laugh, the play would break our hearts.
I’ve always believed that Brecht was a rank sentimentalist at heart and the story at the center of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a retelling of the Judgment of Solomon from the “true” mother’s point of view, is one of his most sentimental.
In a time of revolution, in a country that might be Russia, at a time never quite determined but might be 1917, with war raging and armies on the march, Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis), a young servant in the house of the royal governor, finds herself the protector of the governor’s infant son who has been condemned to die by the revolutionary forces for the crime of having the wrong parents. The governor has been beheaded. The governor’s wife (Mary Testa), self-absorbed in her preparations to flee for her life and more concerned that she get away with as much of her money, jewelry, fancy clothes, and possessions as she can, loses track not just of her child but of the fact that she even has one and leaves the baby behind. Grusha is left to take care of the baby.
She doesn’t want the responsibility. She wants to wait in the village for her soldier fiancé to return from the front. But there’s no one else to hand the baby to and anyway it wouldn’t matter. Grusha looks into the child’s eyes and her fate is sealed.
The rest of Act I is taken up with Grusha’s trials and tribulations as she makes her way towards her brother’s farm in the mountains where she hopes to find refuge.
Grusha is almost impossibly brave, stoic, and earnest as she endures hardship and disease, faces dangers natural and man-made, and fights off and outwits various pursuers. But Davis, a Tony Award nominee last year for her lead role in Once, has successfully taken on the daunting task of giving heart to an essentially one-note character. She manages this not just through her own beautifully sad-eyed, mournful but musically-voiced performance but also through some magically adept puppeteering, the baby Micheal being played by a puppet Davis brings to full expressive life.
There’s a definite Perils of Pauline one-thing-after-another over-muchness in Grusha’s adventures, and besides distancing us from possible over-emotionalism, the comic interruptions and musical interludes---the songs’ English lyrics are by the poet W.H. Auden; CSC’s production features a new score by Tony Award-winning composer Duncan Sheik---help ironize the melodrama, although I think I would have enjoyed it if Kulick had actually made more of that. There are times when, despite the fact that the first act is basically one long chase scene, the characters and the story don’t seem to be going anywhere and things come to a near standstill.
Eventually, Grusha finds relative safety for herself and the baby, whom she has named Michael, through an arranged marriage with a shiftless and conniving famer who’s emotionally but not physically abusive only because he’s too much of a lazy coward. Grusha and Michael are able to hide out and enjoy three years together as mother and child.
Then comes another revolution. The corrupt and violent regime that replaced the first corrupt and violent regime is replaced by a third corrupt and violent regime---and, boy, if Brecht didn’t intend a lesson about human nature and politics in that…---and Michael’s biological mother, the executed governor’s wife, returns to reclaim the family’s property confiscated in the first revolution. That means reclaiming Michael because he’s his father’s heir and she can only get her hands on things through him.
And so Grusha winds up in court before the corrupt and, from all appearances, lunatic judge Azdak, the second act begins, and Christopher Lloyd takes center stage.
Lloyd, who in the first act mostly appears as a nameless and almost characterless narrator coolly and disinterestedly observing Grusha and her troubles with the barest trace of a smile, as if he’s gathering the information he’s relating fro future study, bursts into comic hyperactivity.
He ranges and roars and cringes and crawls and blusters and swaggers all over the stage, making funny and charming Azdak’s many vices and flaws---his knavery, his greed, his vulgarity, his misplaced vanities, his cowardice and drunkenness and self-serving cynicism---and then making clear that there is nothing truly funny or charming in any of it. It’s appalling. Azdak’s appalling. Wonderfully so.
It’s the kind of farcically outsized, Gargantuan performance that can swallow up all a star’s supporting players. But Lloyd knows just when he’s about to go too far and when to pull himself up, pull back, tone it down, and leave the stage to others and then when to throttle it back up full again.
Best of all, he knows exactly when to let it all go and leave Azdak revealed as just as vulnerable and susceptible to Grusha’s heroic decency as we are; in fact, to show us through Azdak our own opened hearts.
The supporting cast of four playing a cast of more than a dozen, Testa, Alex Hurt, Jason Babinsky, Deb Radloff, and Tim Riis Farrell are admirably protean in their switchings between their several roles, with each one given at least one character through which to shine---Hurt as Grusha’s painfully earnest fiancé, Babinsky as the loutish farmer she marries, Radloff as a woman Grusha seeks help from who want to do the right thing but whose nerve fails her at the crucial moment. Testa is hilariously and horrifically imperious and clueless as the governor’s wife and a delight as an addled old woman benefiting from one of Azdak’s more logically twisted rulings. Farrell is a hoot as Azdak’s dimwitted bailiff and touching as Grusha’s well-meaning but timid brother, but for me some of his best moments came when he “broke character” and became the spokesman for the acting company, apologizing to the audience for each mishap and interruption and pleading for help to keep the play going, which of course he does in that heavy Chekhovian---again, Pavel not Anton---accent that cracks me up so much.
I kept hoping he’d ask the way to the nookleer wessels or at least make a reference to Rocky and Bullwinkle, but I guess that would have been taking things too far, even for the sake of Brechtian anti-realism.
Note: Due to prior commitments, Mary Testa had to leave the show. Lea Delaria joined the cast in her place on June 11.
Duncan Sheik talks about his music for The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
And because I can’t resist, that Wendy’s ad:
And Chekhov and the nookleer wessels:
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by Bertholt Brecht, translation by Ralph Manheim with lyrics by W.H. Auden, directed by Brian Kulick, with music by Duncan Sheik. Featuring Christopher Lloyd, Elizabeth A. Davis, Jason Babinsky, Alex Hurt, Deb Radloff, Tim Riis Farrell, and Mary Testa. At Classic Stage Company, East 13th Street, New York City, through Sunday, June 23. Running time about 2 ½ hours with one intermission. Call 212.352.3101 for tickets or visit the website.