Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Theatre at UBC
Bertolt Brecht's 'epic theatre' can be a challenging thing. Most drama seeks to convey meaning by suspending an audience's disbelief and drawing them into its world; Brecht found this problematic. He believed such theatre lulled the viewer into a passive state where they were incapable of processing on deep, intellectual levels.
To counter this, he developed a self-described method of 'alienation,' which ensures active engagement by keeping the audience aware that they are watching a play. It is a theatre of broken fourth walls, blunt exposition, and exposed trappings. Integrating elements of parable, morality play, and cabaret, Brecht's style is magnificently equipped to address big ideas- but notoriously difficult to carry off.
Theatre UBC's production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle succeeds brilliantly at embracing Brecht's philosophies and using them to craft an engaging, rollicking version of the complex work. Presented in-the-round at the Chan Centre's Telus Studio Theatre, the creative team marry intimate, innovative staging with an abundance of original music in a production that does honour to Brecht's great work.
Its setting is fictional Grusinia, where a military revolt among the ruling class has thrown the country into turmoil. In the burning chaos of the capital city, a kitchen maid- Grusha- finds herself in possession of the overthrown Governer's abandoned baby. The first act follows her flight from the city and through the mountains as she tries to find a safe haven. Along the way she comes to care for the child, eventually embracing her role as its new mother.
The second act follows the story of Azdak, a penurious drunk who, through a twist of fate and rhetoric, finds himself occupying the position of judge in the post-revolt capital. The two stories converge at the play's climax, when Grusha and the baby's birth mother are brought before Azdak and his titular chalk circle for a contest of parentage.
Standouts among the cast include Sarah Roa, who brought an intricate mix of steel, earnestness, and maternal warmth to the role of Grusha, and Lara Deglan, whose Azdak walked a delicate line between charming fool and crafty orator.
The work is truly an ensemble piece however, and each member deserves equal commendation for its collective telling. The cast are present on stage throughout, quickly doffing costumes and props as they cycle through a vast array of characters. When not present in a scene, they sit alongside the audience around the stage (a Brechetian reminder that we are observing a play) or pick up instruments (piano, ukelele, trumpet, trombone, guitar – these are a multi-talented bunch) to accompany full-throated cast mates in performing Richard Link's evocative, catchy musical numbers.
Due to the considerable challenges present in his work, opportunities to experience Brecht are rare. Opportunities to experience a production with such charm, originality, and emboidement of epic theatre ideals are rarer still. Theatre at UBC have done both Vancouver and Brecht a great service in bringing it to the stage.