Indifference has never been a common response to Bertolt Brecht, and Antaeus Theatre Company’s new production of the unconventional German playwright’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” is unlikely to change that. With its play-within-a-play structure and provocative themes, the nonprofit company’s staging of the 1944 classic is likely to spark animated discussion.
The play’s basic framework is this: In the aftermath of World War II, farmers haggle over rights to Nazis-abandoned land and whose plan will be most beneficial to the community; using scenes and songs, they act out a parable that recalls a Chinese folk tale called “Chalk Circle” as well as King Solomon’s biblical judgment on two mothers claiming the same child. In that play within the larger play, a young kitchen maid named Grusha rescues a noblewoman’s abandoned baby from being murdered during wartime and raises him as her own, until his birth mother reappears to claim him and his inherited estate. Multiple plotlines converge. Suffice to say that anyone looking for timely commentary on capitalism, fascism, economic inequality, social injustice, violence, culture clashes and/or judicial impropriety will find it.
“What is the difference between fairness and justice? That is what we’re trying to investigate,” says director Stephanie Shroyer.
She calls it an “eternal question” in notes she composed for the play’s program. Brecht “demands” that attention be paid to “the reverberating evidence that justice, fairness and moral responsibility reside in the imperfect container that is humankind.”
“Brecht brought in the imperfection and the contradiction of all human beings … the one person we can find that is just [is] probably going to be an imperfect individual who happens on justice in a particular moment,” Shroyer observes. “The judge in the play exhibits lechery, and he’s kind of a Robin Hood figure [but] a very flawed individual. He makes a decision that is just, but the question of fairness is the dividing point for anyone watching. ‘Does he deserve to make that judgment? Look at what an awful person he is.’ How resonant that sounds today.”
Grusha, portrayed by Liza Seneca, is equally complex — a grounded, “fully realized” survivor, per Seneca, tough yet compassionate, and not a saint.
“She does a really good thing, but that doesn’t mean she’s a perfect person,” Seneca says. “We see her struggle [when she] decides to leave her son with a family that can take care of him and the first thing she feels is relief. I’m glad that’s in the play because it’s so human. We think, ‘Ooh, a mother should be 100 percent fawning over her child 100 percent of the time,’ but that’s not human or reality.”
Brecht, who died in 1956, often outraged Nazi officials and sought refuge throughout Europe after Hitler took control of Germany in 1933; from 1941 through 1947, he lived in the United States. Plays like 1938’s “Fear and Misery of the Third Reich” and 1941’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” were openly anti-fascist and 1939’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” became a particular classic of the era.
His notorious distancing effect arises from combining Marxist politics with the theory of “epic theater” and his way of challenging audiences to engage intellectually rather than emotionally. But the quandary on which “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” turns — i.e., which mother is “real” and has the truest claim to the child — is more emotional than other Brecht vehicles. Seneca notes “little pockets and scenes that are incredibly human and real” that audiences can hook into.
“I think it will be a love-it-or-hate-it experience. I always hope to be part of projects that people will either love or hate; the worst response is, ‘That was nice, where shall we go drink?’ … This celebrates what theater is capable of when the audience and actors willingly suspend their disbelief together and allow themselves to go on a real epic journey.”
Brecht wrote lyrics but did not reach out to frequent collaborator Kurt Weill (with whom he created 1928’s “The Threepenny Opera”) for this play, so cast members have introduced melodies and play an eclectic range of instruments: accordion, banjo, duduk (Armenian woodwind instrument), harmonium, piano, ukulele, violin, and a tonbak (a Persian drum) made by one actress’s brother. Actors with musical skills were cast intentionally, including violinist and prime musical leader Turner Frankosky, and Shroyer says the 16-member ensemble’s diverse accents — Armenian, Dutch, Farsi, German, Polish, Russian, Spanish — enhance musicality as well as a sense that “the world is present.”
“It’s a thrilling collaborative process. I had no idea we were going to do this going in,” says Seneca, who considers herself a “musical person” because she grew up playing piano and singing, but not a composer.
“That’s such a different skill set,” she notes. “But what’s exciting is you realize things you’re capable of, qualities you didn’t necessarily identify in yourself, when you have to rise to the occasion.”
One song has a main character singing, “Times change, times change.” But because of the nature of the circle they — and we — exist in, they really don’t. As Shroyer points out, the chalk circle fable recounted within the play depicts a different culture in a different century, but is “virtually the same story” as the chronicle of King Solomon in the Old Testament.
“We keep revisiting the same things, and that nature of a circle. We think we’re doing something new, but are we just leading up to where we were? Is it just that there are different players in the story? I think that’s why people are constantly interested in it.”
Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” runs through Aug. 26 at Antaeus Theatre Company’s Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale; $15-$35. Box office: (818) 506-1983. antaeus.org/shows/the-caucasian-chalk-circle