Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Mother Courage and Her Children is a kind of tragedy, but The Caucasian Chalk Circle is classically a comedy, with a happy ending. Of course it still have biting irony concerning class and politics, and some unfortunate events.

The basic story: In the midst of a palace coup, the infant prince is left behind, then rescued---reluctantly at first—by the young peasant woman, Grusha. She is pursued by soldiers, in the dangerous landscape of shifting allegiances. Eventually the old rulers return, the governor’s wife wants the baby back, so Grusha is again pursued, and this time is caught.

Then the matter is put before a court, with the genially corrupt, former revolutionary Azdak presiding as judge. He eventually invokes the “chalk circle” test, in which the two women contending for the baby— the now devoted Grusha and the child’s ‘birth mother,’ the governor’s wife—struggle to pull the child outside the circle on their side. Though Grusha loses the struggle, because she won’t endanger the child, she wins the baby, for precisely that reason. She is finally reunited with her soldier lover, so a Shakespearian marriage is not far off to cap the comedy.

The two pivotal characters are Grusha and Azdak. Brecht’s stay in America is reflected in at least one way. In the notes to this play, Brecht writes, “In the English language there is an American term, ‘sucker,’ and this is exactly what Grusha is being when she takes over the child.” He tries to explain what the word means but there is no German equivalent, which probably suggests the concept was new to him in America.

Eric Bentley takes up this theme in a 1966 essay on this play. “To give way to the promptings of nature, to natural sympathy, to the natural love of the Good, is to be a Sucker. America invented that expressive word, and America’s most articulate comedian, W.C. Fields, called one of his films, Never Give a Sucker An Even Break. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a sucker gets an even break."

Azdak is as a character in the “fool” or trickster tradition, especially as preserved in folk tales of clever animals who sometimes triumph, but also sometimes subvert themselves with arrogance, gluttony, greed and too much cleverness. He is a kind of rogue, but he rises to the occasion in Grusha’s case.

Though the play is lighter than “Mother Courage,” it is also suffused with irony and social consciousness, this time more directly concentrated on class. But like Charles Dickens, who also wrote to champion the downtrodden, Brecht spares no class, high or low, in his exposure of hypocrisy, meanness and selfishness. He does so with comedy (as folk stories do) and irony, but never simply as a joke. A peasant in "Mother Courage" is willing to die rather than give information that would allow the sleeping children in town to be slaughtered, when the soldiers threaten her bull and cows, she relents. This is ironic and funny, an apparent comment on character, yet deeply tragic, because it’s tragically true: without livestock, the entire family might starve.

The local "Chalk Circle" production was a project for freshmen and sophomores at North Coast Prep, ranging in age from 13 to l6 (including several foreign exchange students.) More than thirty actors and musicians participated, with music composed and played by students Greg Moore and Izzy Samuels.

Director and teacher Jean Bazemore said her students responded to this play's humor and core message-- --“that there are good people who take risks and make difficult choices in difficult times. They love it. The opportunity to meet characters who make courageous choices is really appealing to them.”

Though the players were young, this was not an ordinary high school production. Theatre is a core subject at North Coast Prep, and everyone involved lives up to their membership in the Young Actors Guild ensemble: they take theatre and learning about it seriously, and work together and support each other every day.

Plus they have Jean Bazemore, a talented and visionary director who directed at HSU and elsewhere for many years. Also the set and lighting design of Gerald Beck, always breathtaking in their simplicity, elegance and appropriateness, providing these young actors with an environment that both expresses and guides them. Neither of them approaches their productions as anything less than a professional effort, and their seriousness is palpable in the discipline of the actors.

But the production still has an educational function, and part of it is to provide for as much participation as possible. Even with so many roles, some are double-cast. The Chalk Circle is quite a challenge, but added to that, it was performed in the large Van Duzer theatre over 4 consecutive nights, with two additional morning performances for other schools. (Residents of a local homeless shelter were also guests at one performance.) Double-casting in the main roles probably helped, and so does youth, but it was still a daunting schedule.

I saw it on opening night, when the cast was still getting their legs under them, though by the second half they were proceeding with more confidence and less self-consciousness. Chisa Hughes as Grusha (she alternated with Fiona Ryder) and Bo Banducci as Azdak (alternating with Isaiah Cooper) did very well in their key roles, and made sure everything they said and did was clear, with defined actions and strong stage voices.

Hughes has an impressive singing voice, though she only got to sing one song the night I saw her perform (many of the play's songs weree spoken.) Banducci has the physical ease and fluidity of a natural performer, plus a vocal quality that is not only clear but inherently interesting, like Peter Coyote’s voice, which invites and commands attention. I look forward to seeing both of them (as well as others in the cast) develop their skills to play nuance and control pace.

While not as powerful or focused as the fall production of Antigone and St. Joan by North Coast Prep’s juniors and seniors, at least when I saw it, this “Chalk Circle” was still a good night of theatre for local audiences, especially as an introduction to Brecht. I wish I could have seen it again later in the run, for I felt that this group would learn a great deal in a few days. What especially interested me was that none of these very young actors had any visible problem playing Brecht. Chisa Hughes was an appropriately sympathetic Grusha, and Bo Banducci was an appropriately ironic Azdak.

For all of Brecht’s influential theories, his plays are filled with drama and emotion, as well as irony and dark laughter (be it gallows humor or black humor, or “Brechtian” humor.) Eric Bentley said that when he taught Brecht, he didn’t start with Brecht’s theories but with his poems. (The North Coast Prep program included a great one.) Perhaps it’s even enough to start with his plays.

“The plays of so socially conscious a playwright as Brecht, who was dedicated to the task of showing his fellow human beings that the world must be changed through social action, also contain powerful poetic metaphors of human emotion,” wrote Martin Esslin, in the final pages of his book, An Anatomy of Drama. “Mother Courage pulling her cart, Gruscha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle crossing the swaying bridge over the ravine to save the child…these are poetic images of human resilence, tenderness and sensuality...”

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