Reviewed by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move
There are always two sides to a story.
If you had to describe the essence of Antaeus Theatre Company’s presentation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, director Stephanie Shroyer’s (above) is one explanation that dwells within what is an epic of trial, tribulation, heartbreak and happiness for Grusha (Liza Seneca), a simple kitchen maid, hoping to live a simple life, with a simple boy, but who gets caught up in a horrible war, driven from the home where she lives and later the home where she spent her childhood, contracted and married to a terrible man for survival, unintentionally betraying her true love, and a host of inequities that layer themselves upon her life. But she embarks on this reluctant journey for a single difficult purpose. To remedy an injustice for an innocent.
As part of the company’s ongoing departure theme of ‘trying new works,’ Antaeus presents playwright Alistair Beaton’s translation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 masterpiece of the ancient Chinese folkloric version of the Biblical story of King Solomon dividing a baby between two mothers. Modernized and set in the Caucasus Mountains of medieval Georgia with an added prologue in Soviet Georgia, Brecht has intentionally made the story less realistic in order to force the audience to think critically about the social issues presented. And indeed, there are visibly relevant issues that are openly projected from and onto this script that consider the world today as we are experiencing it. It’s not pretty.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play within a play, set amidst the rubble of a bombed-out village in the aftermath of World War II, a parable in which Grusha risks her life to rescue an abandoned baby. A baby who also happens to be the heir to the kingdom and who holds a fortune in land and assets. But whose mother, The Governor’s wife (Claudia Elmore), easily abandons him … hyper-focused on rescuing herself and her priceless possessions, (apparently, not her son), after her husband is murdered. A child who is pursued by opposing forces in order to kill him so that there can be no trace of his legacy and therefore no claim to his inheritance or an eventual disruption in the new order. When years later Grusha is challenged by the child’s biological mother for the right to keep the baby, she does not give in to promise of freedom from responsibility or reward, or even bullying or threats. Her love for the child is fierce and defiant. There will be no giving him up to the woman who has come to restore her wealth and position by claiming him under the guise of ‘rightful motherhood’. Grusha has cared and protected and loved the boy as her own and he surely is hers. And yet, the compelling moment is her willingness to ‘let him go’ for his sake. Literally, the women are ordered by a judge to wrestle for the child in a chalk circle, pulling him hard enough to tear his limbs in order to see who has the more powerful claim. Grusha refuses so as not to harm the child, whereas the other woman without pause takes up the challenge. And it is, for the judge, the truth of Grusha’s sincerest maternal love.
Seneca is steady in her portrayal of the peasant enmeshed in a cacophony of overwhelming actions, words, accusations, misunderstandings, and more which regularly confront her and her will to do what’s right and good in a terrible, violent world. And the entire Caucasian Chalk Circle cast certainly brings on the parable full force, illustrating as clearly as they can, the abstract of the complex ideas about social justice. In addition, a most unrestrained musical score has been invented for this production adding a most welcome levity to a story percolated with meanings, intentions and moral dilemmas, that often take patience to stick with throughout the labyrinth of analogy.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is altogether successful and truly skillful as much as it is entertaining, certainly for the Antaeus Theatre Company whose willingness for risk on stage is growing more palpable.
Photo (above) by Jenny Graham: Liza Seneca, Alex Knox, Turner Frankosky, Gabriela Bonet, Steve Hofvendahl, Claudia Elmore and Troy Guthrie