The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht

The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht
The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Antaeus Theatre Company

Bertolt Brecht's 1944 masterpiece is next up at Antaeus. "Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it." — Bertolt Brecht

GLENDALE, Calif. The city burns in the heat of civil war and a servant girl sacrifices everything to protect a forsaken child. Antaeus Theatre Company presents Bertolt Brecht's1944 masterpiece, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, in a contemporary translation by award-winning playwright Alistair Beaton. Stephanie Shroyer directs for a July 11 opening at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale, where performances continue through Aug. 26. Low-priced previews begin July 5.

Set deep in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia against a backdrop of violence and injustice, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play within a play. Amidst the rubble of a bombed out village in the aftermath of World War II, farmers debating the best use of their land enact a parable in which a humble kitchen maid risks her life to rescue an abandoned baby from civil war. But when peace is finally restored, the child's aristocratic mother returns to claim him. Calling upon the ancient tradition of the chalk circle, a comical judge sets about to resolve the dispute, and the entire social order of a corrupt and violent world is put on trial.

"The questions of who and what are best suited for a necessary purpose are rife with contradiction," suggests Shroyer. "There are always two sides to a story. Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle takes two sides and places them in his circle so that the spectator (Brecht's 'foreigner') is charged with pulling the 'right' answer out. The contrariness of human nature makes the effort less than clear for those of us on the circumference."

In keeping with the style Brecht called "epic theater" — plays that, while providing entertainment, are strongly didactic and capable of provoking social change — the playwright's statements about class and injustice are cloaked in the innocence of a fable that whispers insistently to the audience. He also included a number of "songs" to comment on the action. However, there is no officially published score, and the Antaeus production features original music and songs created and performed by the acting ensemble.

"I've always loved The Caucasian Chalk Circle and having lived for a while in Germany, where Brecht remains this towering figure, it was a real pleasure to go back to the original translation," says Beaton. "Written by the grand master of storytelling and peopled with vivid and amusing characters, this is one of the greatest plays of the last century."

Beaton's translation has been praised by the London Telegraph for its "political wit and crisp clarity" and labeled "faithful, humorous and sharp" by the Sunday Herald. Whats On Stage wrote, "Alistair Beaton's translation is excellent, surpassing high expectations; the clarity and strength of his writing is an apt vessel for Brecht's bold tale of justice, corruption and the challenges to morality that exist in the world."

Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) is considered to be one of the truly great dramatists of the 20th Century, whose work has helped to shape a generation of writers, theatergoers and thinkers. Although Brecht's first plays were written in Germany during the 1920s, he was not widely known until much later. Eventually his theories of stage presentation exerted more influence on the course of mid-century theater in the West than did those of any other individual. This was largely because he proposed the major alternative to the Stanislavsky-oriented realism that dominated acting and the "well-made play" construction that dominated playwriting. Brecht's earliest work was heavily influenced by German Expressionism, but it was his preoccupation with Marxism and the idea that man and society could be intellectually analyzed that led him to develop his theory of "epic theater." Brecht believed that theater should appeal not to the spectator's feelings but to his reason. In the realistic theater of illusion, he argued, the spectator tended to identify with the characters on stage and become emotionally involved with them rather than being stirred to think about his own life. To encourage the audience to adopt a more critical attitude to what was happening on stage, Brecht developed his Verfremdungs-effekt("alienation effect") — i.e., the use of anti-illusive techniques to remind the spectators that they are in a theater watching an enactment of reality instead of reality itself. From his actors, Brecht demanded not realism and identification with the role, but an objective style of playing — to become, in a sense, detached observers. Brecht's most important plays, which included Leben des Galilei ("The Life of Galileo"), Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder ("Mother Courage and Her Children") and Der gute Mensch von Sezuan ("The Good Person of Szechwan") were written between 1937 and 1945, while he was in exile from the Nazi regime — first in Scandinavia and then in the United States. At the invitation of the newly formed East German government, he returned to found the Berliner Ensemble in 1949 with his wife, Helene Weigel, as leading actress. It was only at this point, through his own productions of his plays, that Brecht earned his reputation as one of the most important figures of 20th-century theater.

Performances of The Caucasian Chalk Circle begin on Thurs, July 11, with performances taking place thereafter on Fri. at 8 p.m., Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. through Aug. 26 (dark Monday, July 15). Five previews July 5 through July 10.