The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Sarah Roa (centre) Credit:  Nancii Bernard
Sarah Roa (centre) as Grusha
Credit: Nancii Bernard

At Telus Studio Theatre (UBC) until October 5

Posted on September 23, 2013

What do you do with Bertolt Brecht and The Caucasian Chalk Circle in the Western world in the 21st century? It’s a tough sell. Director Stephen Heatley and the BFA graduating acting class attempt to wrestle this beast to the ground with mixed results.

Brecht, a Marxist who fled Germany when Hitler came into power, wrote The Caucasian Chalk Circle in 1944 while living in California. After appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 (where he denied being a ‘member of the Communist Party’), he returned to Europe and eventually to Berlin in 1949 where he founded the famous Berliner Ensemble theatre company.

Brecht’s influence is controversial but undeniable. He rejected the Aristotelian idea of catharsis through pity and fear. Believing that theatre should be instructive and an instrument for bringing about political change, Brecht developed what he called ‘epic theatre’ in which the audience should always be made aware that this was theatre, a human construct, and not reality. Only by being distanced from the story and free from emotional involvement, he thought, would audiences process the play rationally: hence the famous – or infamous – Verfremdungseffekt, sometimes referred to as the ‘alienation’ effect but better described as ‘distancing’. Actors remain on stage throughout; music ‘interrupts’ the action; there are villains but the heroes arrive at heroism as a result of circumstances; and all the plays are politically charged and Marxist-inspired.

Director Heatley uses the James and Tania Stern translation (with W.H. Auden) and introduces original music by Richard Link. While Brecht indicates in the script various songs, he does not include a score so directors are free to use what music they want. Brecht, however, had a penchant for untrained voices and discordant music – in keeping with the tenets of epic theatre. Link’s music, performed by nine or ten musicians plus percussion by the ensemble, is outstanding but, strange as it may seem to say, too lovely for Brecht. (Lara Deglan on trumpet and Daniel Meron on trombone are exceptionally fine, possibly the best part of this production.)

Lara Deglan (centre) Credit: Nancii Bernard
Lara Deglan (centre)
Credit: Nancii Bernard

Costume design by Laura Fukumoto is excellent, ranging from lavish, upper-class gowns and coats to ragged peasant dress.

If you haven’t seen The Caucasian Chalk Circle before (and who does it these days except theatre schools, partly – but not only – because of the large cast), read a synopsis online. It’s a play-within-a-play, presented by a travelling troupe, to influence a decision over land use. Following the war, one group occupying a valley wishes the land to be returned to those who previously raised goats there. The other group wants to turn it into orchards. The parable of the chalk circle – from an old Chinese legend – is a stretch but Brecht uses it to bring home the concept of ‘to those who will use the land most productively’ go the spoils: “What there is shall go to those who are good for it”. Of course, this fails to address who is qualified to make the decision. (Immediately the Northern Gateway Project comes to mind: who will use that land ‘best’ or ‘most effectively’ or ‘most productively’? Who decides? And do the wishes of relatively small but historically significant First Nations count for anything?)

Nick Preston (in tub) and Morgan Churla Credit: Nancii Bernard
Nick Preston (in tub) and Morgan Churla
Credit: Nancii Bernard

The night I attended the performance, the audience was decidedly strange, laughing at every little sexual innuendo, fart joke or waggling behind. Brecht is wry and ironic but not gut-bustingly funny. Indeed, I have often wondered if Brecht had a sense of humour at all. Director Heatley, however, introduces what looks like vaudeville with exaggerated performances that border on slapstick. The Fat Prince and some others are caricatures and while this kind of performance certainly ‘distances’ us, if it prompts laughter from the audience, are we getting the message: corruption is evil and should be stamped out?

This is an ambitious undertaking; every production of Brecht is and this particular play even more so. But there are some excellent performances especially Sarah Roa (as Grusha), Lara Deglan (Azdak), Nicole Sekiya (Natella and others), Sarah Harrison (Governor and others) and Luke Johnson (Simon).

Three hours, however, is a long time to wait for what is a questionable decision: the goat farmers or the fruit growers? The ultimate irony is this: Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt distances us to the point we don’t give a damn. And as for the play-within-the-play, since the characters are mere ‘constructs’ to serve Brecht’s political agenda, do we really care what happens to them, either?