Brecht is the spinach of contemporary theatergoing. He’s meant to be improving but leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Whether this is the fault of recent styles of interpretation or something more fundamental in the work is a question one isn’t really allowed to ask. At any rate, it’s a question the new production of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, at Classic Stage Company, isn’t strong enough to answer.
It’s faintly possible to imagine a Caucasian Chalk Circle that isn’t boring. There are jokes, pithy ironies, and even songs — in this case, Auden’s translation of Brecht’s lyrics, prettily set to music by Duncan Sheik. The structure itself is intriguing: more than just a play within a play, it’s a parable within a picaresque within a vaudeville. The outermost shell, in this production involving a ragtag post-Soviet theater troupe, is the least engaging. (The actors in the troupe are grumpy and argumentative, and the repeated bit in which their lights go out soon pales.) The play they present, though, has more to say for itself. Set in what is evidently ancient Georgia but with superimposed fall-of-communism imagery, it is centered on Grusha, a destitute serving girl, who rescues a highborn baby abandoned when a revolution deposes the gentry. Despite myriad hardships both physical and social, she manages to raise the boy as her own, until his birth mother — the former governor’s wife — reappears, demanding justice.
Ah, justice! Gird yourself for Brecht’s most withering ironies as he bitterly (and surely with good cause) rips our comfortable pieties on the subject to shreds. For who is the town’s recently appointed new judge, the old one having been hanged, but the drunk peasant Azdak? (“The Judge was always a rascal,” explains a soldier. “Now the rascal shall be the Judge.”) Azdak has theatrical and sometimes objectionable notions of right and wrong; in one of a series of predictably ironic decisions he finds a woman guilty of the crime done to her by a stableman:
By eating too much, especially sweet things, by lying too long in warm water, by laziness and too soft a skin, you have raped the poor man. Do you imagine you can go around with a bottom like that and get away with it in court? This is a case of deliberate assault with a dangerous weapon.
It’s possible, and for Brechtians necessary, to argue that this smarm is satire: scoundrels being no better at moral reasoning than the pompous legal Establishment. But even in the dull 1963 translation by James and Tania Stern, it’s clear that Brecht is just attempting to be funny, in the manner of misogynist popular entertainment of his time. (“It’s good for Justice to do it in the open,” Azdak says. “The wind blows her skirts up and you can see what’s underneath.) Unable to pull that style off, the terrifying Christopher Lloyd as Azdak just shouts; it would take a Milton Berle or a Jerry Lewis to nail the character’s goofy nastiness.
As teeth-grinding as this is — it really is a trial — the courtroom scene leads at last to the play’s innermost shell, the parable referenced in the title. In order to adjudicate the competing claims of Grusha and the governor’s wife, Azdak administers the ancient test of the chalk circle. (It’s not really Caucasian; Brecht imported the idea from a Chinese folktale.) And here, as the women compete to prove their maternity, we finally get recognizable drama: not “epic,” not purposely disruptive of engagement as so much of the evening has been, but touching and human and somehow, you can’t help feeling, illicit.
The production’s failure to resolve the problem of adherence to the Brechtian concept of alienation is the source of most of what’s good about it. The director Brian Kulick delineates the boundaries between the narrative shells without adhering to them slavishly. His minimalist staging is not without touches of grace and humor: a spring thaw is suggested by sponges dripping, a footbridge by pieces of luggage strewn across the stage in a line. But he does not seem to have figured out what to do about the acting. Elizabeth A. Davis (last seen playing the violin in Once) is working, quite beautifully, in a naturalistic vein as Grusha; Mary Testa is having her usual grand time as Mary Testa. (Lea DeLaria takes over the role of the governor’s wife during the last two weeks of the run.) Everyone else, especially Lloyd — the marquee name if there were a marquee — is left to swim back and forth, over and over, between two theatrical shores. It’s exhausting.
Which is not to say it’s unworthwhile. You may be discouraged from taking too much solace from the play, but the exploration of solace as a concept is permitted. Indeed, in the story of a life saved by unexpected feeling for another human being, it’s mandatory. Is love only love if it’s disinterested? Or is it never love if it’s disinterested? And if you substitute “justice” for “love” in those questions, does the answer change? Brecht gets to these considerations, but only after a lot of hectoring that is painfully reminiscent of the totalitarian voices he otherwise means to parody. My Brecht problem, especially in a middling production like this one, stems from that sense of people as just barely worth the efforts of his intelligence. How strongly he must have felt the force of the comment he gave the narrator to speak (“loudly,” according to the stage directions) while Grusha decides whether to rescue the baby: “Terrible is the temptation to do good.”
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is at Classic Stage Company through June 23.