It seems awfully punk-rock to set a production of committed Marxist Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle during the fall of the Soviet Union, but that is just what Classic Stage Company Artistic Director Brian Kulick has done with the help of new music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening).
Indeed, Stalin Prize winner Brecht originally framed his play with a prologue, written in the spirit of Soviet triumphalism, about a land dispute between two agricultural communes in post-World War II Georgia. Both groups come to a rational decision about the best use of the land and decide to perform a play in celebration. (That "play within a play" is the focus of this production.) Because of the way it dates the play and opens it up to the charge of historical revisionism, the prologue is now rarely performed. It is not in this production, which instead features an original prologue of Russian actors kvetching about the failures of the Soviet Union. However, lest you think, A lesson about the evils of communism is the last thing an audience paying sixty-five dollars a ticket needs to hear, know that Kulick, who was responsible for last season's production of Brecht's Galilieo, has crafted a nuanced production that challenges the status quo, be it Soviet communist or neoliberal capitalist.
Kulick presents us with an ensemble of seven weary Russian thespians, carrying their production in large suitcases, ready to perform in whatever rundown theater will host them: Tonight they have chosen Classic Stage. As a towering statue of Vladimir Lenin topples Saddam Hussein-style, they act out the story of Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis), a maid to the recently deposed Governor Georgi Abashvili (Lenin) and his wife (the always hilarious Mary Testa). When Mrs. Abashvili abandons her infant son, Michael, while fleeing the revolution, Grusha decides to take the child and journey over the Caucuses in search of safety, dreaming of the day she will be reunited with her beloved fiancé, Simon (Alex Hurt). Christopher Lloyd, wearing a wig of long white hair reminiscent of a thinning Doc Brown, narrates and watches over the first act as "The Singer."
Sheik's music offers an emotional setting for W.H. Auden's lyrics, based on Brecht's original German. With her powerfully resonant voice, Davis has a talent for performing the weepier numbers, which fit flawlessly within the milieu of mid-'90s-style bubble coats and angst.
Throughout the play the thespians deal with frequent power outages and technical difficulties. Brecht was insistent that his audiences should always remember they are in a theater and not be too drawn in to the illusion; these staged technical difficulties keep us sufficiently aware of the artifice. At one point during an extended blackout, the players hold candles and ad-lib by singing The Internationale. It's not that these wandering actors are hardcore communists — this is just what they collectively know by heart, in a crumbling Russia that has very little these days in terms of social cohesion.
Tony Straiges' brilliant and visually stimulating set best tells the story of this post-Soviet identity crisis in which communism has given way to gangster capitalism. In the first act, Soviet propaganda decks the walls while the stage is littered with broken lighting fixtures, leaves, and the occasional page ripped from an orthodox liturgical book. In the second act, giant corporate logos cover much of the old communist imagery. Someone has scrawled a hammer, a sickle, and "Go F___ Yourself Capitalist" (иди на хуй капиталист) over a Coca-Cola billboard.
This atmosphere of discontent is a fitting backdrop for the second act, in which Lloyd removes his wig to play Azdak, the vagabond who becomes a judge in the heady days following Abashvili's fall. Lloyd works up a sweat in this athletic performance, drawing the audience into his circus-like court with indomitable charm. Like in Putin's Russia, justice can be bought in Azdak's court, albeit in a distinctly subversive form. None of that bodes well for Grushka, who has been summoned to court to face the governor's wife, now petitioning for Michael's return. That is when Azdak devises a test reminiscent of Solomon: He draws a chalk circle and places Michael in the center. Whichever woman can pull him out will be ruled his true mother. This leaves us with the question: Does might always equal right?
While The Caucasian Chalk Circle, like most of Brecht's work, can easily become heavy under the weight of "We're-going-to-teach-you-something," Kulick never falls into this trap. The good-natured and friendly Russian actors prove the perfect way to add levity to this show while simultaneously staying true to Brecht's spirit. For a 21st century American audience, they are certainly more relatable than the denizens of a farming collective.
Kulick leaves his audience with fewer answers than questions in this intelligent revival, ones that will invariably be debated for days to come after leaving the theater. This was certainly Brecht's intention, more than any particular political agenda.