The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Local Arts Reviews

The Caucasian Chalk Circle: Army on Stage

Oscar Brockett Theatre, UT campus, through Nov. 17

Running Time: 2 hrs, 20 min

Another war play for Austin. How did this come to be? Theatrical organizations usually choose their seasons well in advance, sometimes as much as a year beforehand. With the advent of yet another Republican administration, could it be that the citizens of Austin, both transient and permanent, could anticipate the national reality we now find staring in our collective face?

Of course it could, and few playwrights present more subversive moral indictments of war than Bertolt Brecht. In this play, probably his most produced along with Three-Penny Opera and another war play, Mother Courage and Her Children, Brecht tells the story of Grusha, a servant in the house of a governor who rules at the behest of a grand duke. The governor and his wife have a baby, Michael, and shortly after his birth, the governor's brother stages a coup, killing the governor and forcing the wife and the grand duke to flee. Michael is left behind, and Grusha takes him, flees herself, and raises him as her own. After more than two years, the wife returns to claim Michael, and Grusha is put to the test by a drunken judge in a tug-of-war with the wife, with Michael as the rope in the middle of the titular circle of chalk.

Few institutions in Austin can produce a play like the UT Department of Theatre & Dance. With seemingly limitless resources, they make an indelible visual impression with every main-stage production they present, and this production at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre makes exactly that. Marcie Rector's costumes are rich and varied in influence: more traditional uniforms for the ruling parties; dark metallic squares seemingly pieced together, along with black fencing helmets and pikes, for the soldiers; and colorful rags for the peasants. Grusha appears to have stepped out of the frame of a Vermeer. Designer Rick Smith's set is an impressive series of platforms and stairways backed and supported by pipes and scaffolding that reach high into the stage space. Banners drop and are torn down when no longer needed, and yards of fabric, both large and small, substitute for rivers and streams. Director David Charles Goyette stages the play using an army of actors, constantly moving them in and out and up and down on Smith's massive set, giving the impression of a huge and hungry populace.

So much in the play worked, I was surprised that so much did not. Goyette chooses to frame the play with a mock lecture on Brecht that comes off as pretentious. Much worse, most of the actors do not possess the vocal instruments to allow the audience to hear Brecht's dialogue, and therefore much of the story is lost. Two of the actors in particular impress: Mary Hill, beautiful and delicate as the gentle Grusha, and Caleb Stewart, as her lover, Simon. I believed every moment they had together, and I wish I could say the same for the majority of the other actors, who painted their characters too broadly to be believed, even when "playing" students, which all are. I wish more of them had struck the same style of play as Hill and Stewart, an effective and affecting one in which two people would not allow their love to be torn apart.

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The Caucasian Chalk Circle, UT Department of Theatre & Dance, Bertolt Brecht, David Charles Goyette, Marcie Rector, Rick Smith, Mary Hill, Caleb Stewart

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