My oh my the amount of theatre I saw this weekend! So much theatre that I might not get to write reviews of everything; but here’s another to add to the collection.
Saturday, I got out to see Apollinaire’s Caucasian Chalk Circle. For those who have never seen Apollinaire before, they’re a really great company (their Uncle Vanya this year past was truly wonderful and made me, a formerly dubious audience of Soviet theatre, a true Chekhov believer). As far as I can tell, they prefer to produce “strolling” productions (that is, shows which take place in literally different locations so that the audience has to move with the action in order to observe it). For Caucasian Chalk Circle, this particular aesthetic fed in exceedingly well with Brecht’s piece.
Bertold Brecht was a German playwright who changed the face of theatre as we know it. After writing some extremely influential pieces (including Mother Courage and her Children and Threepenny Opera), he fled Germany and the imminent Nazi occupation. After a veritable tour of Northern Europe, he came to land in the United States for a time. During this time, Brecht was unsure about his future, unsure whether he would ever seen Germany again, and unsure whether his plays would ever be performed once more in his native language. Still, he wrote plays in German. Caucasian Chalk Circle is one of those plays.
Brecht is perhaps most famous for his grand contribution to the development of
the theatrical form known as “epic theatre”. Epic theatre is a modern style developed in reaction to naturalism and its most salient goal is for an audience to have constant awareness that it is witnessing a play in production rather than any slice of reality. To achieve this, epic theatre utilizes imbedded elements such as narrators, storytellers, and song; technical attributes such as screens, projections, and fully lit houses; and performance traditions such as actors playing multiple characters, and actors moving sets and changing costumes in full view of the audience. The effect of estranging an audience from the play’s action is something which Brecht calls “Verfremdungseffekt” and is often translated as “alienation”.
In light of this, Apollinaire’s show is precisely in keeping with the Brechtian tradition. Caucasian Chalk Circle is a free, open-air production which springs up in Mary O’Malley park as quickly and ephemerally as its pre-show music (…mostly this pre-show music seemed to be generated by the assembled flock of musicians being bored together and so we were treated to impromptu renditions of Johnny Cash standards on an accordion). As such, the audience can see every single string. The actors move the sets between locations and unabashedly set them up/take them down as necessary. The stagehands flit about in full view of the assembly as they assist with costumes and props. The storyteller asks audience members to follow her from location to location between acts. A chalkboard acts as a makeshift screen and announces the title of each act. I think it is safe to say that Apollinaire succinctly and gracefully captured the spirit of epic theatre.
The assembly was rock solid. There wasn’t a weak performance amongst the lot. Despite Brecht’s insistence that an audience not overly empathize with his characters, it was hard to maintain the appropriate Brechtian distance due to the power of Courtland Jones’ Grushna and the charmingness of Mauro Canepa’s Simon. I can only hope that their Spanish-cast counterparts (the show is performed in English/Spanish on alternating nights) bring as much punch to the story.
Apollinaire performs Chalk Circle sans its prologue. While this is a common practice, it is one which scholars have debated for years since the prologue frames the tale within an external story. The prologue sets the scene in post-WWII Soviet Union and depicts two communes arguing over a piece of land. In order to further enlighten the dispute, one commune decides to perform an old folk tale for the other. Arkadi Cheidze, the story-teller/singer, brings his band of minstrels to do so and the play commences.
Does it change the meaning of this piece to have that framework surrounding it? It would certainly have answered my big question as I walked away (“what are we to take from this play?”). I leave that for you to ponder and encourage you, with all the force of my internet-power, to go see this show. It’s a great night out, and it’s free, so you really have no excuse.
As a coda to this verse, let me take a moment to expound upon how much I love open-air theatre and most especially initiatives like this one. Free quality theatre in the park is truly a service to society. Looking around the audience, I was struck by how many people there looked like “normal people”; we were just an assembly of neighbors come to watch a play. Pretensions were out the window as we sat on picnic blankets and towels, huddled close around the storytellers. For me, theatre doesn’t get much more wholesome than this. Call me a romantic, but I’m a firm believer in this sort of initiative because of its equalizing power and would like to assert that it is pieces like this which will ensure future audiences for the general theatrical community.
Caucasian Chalk Circle plays through this week and closes on July 27th. There is one more Spanish performance on Friday the 26th. For more information, visit Apollinaire’s website.