I wasn’t particularly psyched for Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Shaking the Tree. But as usual, Samantha van der Merwe’s set design and directorial work produced a singularly weird vision that—amazingly—made me forget the runtime (it’s three hours long), with assists from a capable ensemble of actors, a story that raises questions of justice and communal property, and a script that makes SO MUCH FUN of heartless rich people.
Brecht based his play on the Chinese story of a peasant woman who rescues a rich couple’s child when they abandon him. Transferred to Georgia (the country, not the state), Brecht’s version centers on a kitchen maid, Grusha (Samie Pfeifer), who saves the child of wealthy parents when they forget him on their way out of town, on the run from an SS-like group called the Ironshirts. Also, the entire first scene is a framing device about a land dispute, and Grusha’s story is essentially a metaphor for how property should be distributed fairly, a message conveyed through an almost-fantastical world of poverty, destructive social conventions, and corrupt government officials. In this sense, it’s very close to the world we live in.
Still with me? Maybe not, and that’s fine! Brecht is a hard sell, and even the play knows it—during an extended bit of physical comedy in a protracted courtroom sequence, ensemble member Heath Koerschgen admonishes his fellow actors for wasting time: “Holy shit! You know this is a three-hour play.... It’s like a thesis project.”
It’s a self-referential moment that had already been borne out by my fellow audience members: There were six newly empty seats after intermission. The college students sitting next to me were audibly bored. Those still in the bathroom line at 7:29 had been curtly informed of the play’s “strict 7:30 start time.” The audience’s mood was one of people who’d been expecting an evening of leisure and instead found themselves conscripted into a grad school poetics lecture.
But the difference between studying Brecht and seeing Brecht is huge. I’ve attended that poetics lecture; it left me generally wary. I’ve always viewed Brecht as the outer limit of theater, a figure of forbidding complexity beloved by only the most pretentious among us. But The Caucasian Chalk Circle isn’t dry, nor is it performatively, gratingly opaque. It’s accessible, with good-natured, occasionally unhinged humor and a clear, simple underlying sense of morality—sometimes, people with bad intentions do the right thing, even if it’s by accident. No character embodies this very human duality better than Azdak (Clifton Holznagel), the corrupt, drunken judge who makes absurd rulings, wheels around his courtroom sitting on a law book, and yet plays a pivotal role in the play’s unexpectedly cheerful conclusion.
Though some of the singing goes too long (yes, there is singing), and the utility of the play’s framing sequence was lost on me, I left oddly refreshed. It probably seems sad that antifascist theater feels so relevant again, and it is. At the same time, Brecht’s complex morals—that even bad people stumble on goodness sometimes, if only out of stupidity; that good parenting and material wealth are two different things; that we have a responsibility to our communities to use land appropriately and wisely—conveyed a funny, clear-eyed optimism that I was grateful to have witnessed, and that made me think more about the current world than the one onstage, which was, you know, Brecht’s intention.
If you’re up for The Caucasian Chalk Circle, you’ll be rewarded for sticking it out. But get there early. They’re strict about starting at 7:30.