BWW Review: Constellation Theatre's THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE Avoids Becoming a Roundabout Affair

BWW Review: Constellation Theatre's THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE Avoids Becoming a Roundabout Affair
Yesenia Iglesias, Lisa Hodsoll, Keith Irby, and Teresa Spencer in The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Photo by Daniel Schwartz

Allegorical works are becoming more atypical during the age of Trump. For modern playwrights, it's easier to bluntly educate audiences (a la Arena Stage's Sovereignty), attack leaders (Mosaic Theatre's Vicuña), or explicitly advocate for change (Signature's 4,380 Nights). Burying meaning behind complex, and often ridiculous, stories can make underlying themes more difficult to parse for audience members. This proves a double-edged sword, however, as complex allegories give audiences a reason to dissect and discuss what has unfolded in front of them.

Constellation Theatre Company's new production of Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle isn't perfect. It is undoubtedly a celebration of what smart allegory can be. As this small theater company stretches itself to the limits to ensure they do Brecht's seminal work justice, they make great cases for both why more people should be visiting Constellation and why Brecht's work should be examined more often.

In the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, the young kitchen maid Grusha (Yesenia Iglesias) daringly saves an abandoned baby from civil war. Deserting her beloved, she vows to protect her new charge, journeying far to prevent any harm coming to this baby. Although her travels are fraught with danger, Grusha's good nature serves her well and gives her and the child a chance to find a home free from the dangers from which they flee. When her legitimacy as the child's mother is endangered by the arrival of his aristocratic mother (a superb Teresa Spencer), the two must demonstrate their devotion through a chalk circle test.

Bertolt Brecht is studied in classrooms the world over in large part for his influence over epic theatre, which broke with conventional theatric illusions and let performers break the fourth wall to address a play's themes head-on. This play, arguably his most famous, is inspired by a 14th-century Chinese play but moves the action to the Caucasus mountain range spanning Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. Translated by Alistair Beaton (The Arsonists, which played at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company this season), the play captures its allegorical roots while tinging itself with a biting tone expected from modern satire.

Mr. Beaton's translation smirks when touching on subjects that remain as relevant now as when Brecht penned his script in 1944. While fleeing from civil war, Grusha finds herself in an inn with two aristocratic refugees. When labeled as refugees, the ladies throw their arms up and declare what an insult it is to be compared to "the likes of those people." Air can be heard leaving the room after such a line, as the audience applies these words to today's political backdrop. Refugees, class struggles, and more find new depths to plunder over this two and a half hour evening.

BWW Review: Constellation Theatre's THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE Avoids Becoming a Roundabout Affair
Matthew Schleigh in The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Photo by Daniel Schwartz

Constellation takes a huge risk with Chalk Circle by immersing the audience in the action. The black box theater at Source (the space at which Constellation is in residence) is already an intimate setting. This intimacy is compounded as actors are quite literally in the faces of audience members during this production. Several seats are even built into the set, surrounded on all four sides by walkways utilized frequently by the large company. Directing a production in the round is no easy feat, but Allison Arkel Stockman (Constellation's Founding Artistic Director) proves up to the challenge. Never during this production was an actor inaudible nor were any ever turned to any one side for too long. Equity and energy have been prioritized in this staging which manifests successfully in this brisk production.

Ms. Stockman's creative team matches her vision each step of the way. Kelsey Hunt (Theatre J's The Last Night of Ballyhoo) expertly designs her costumes so they can work double-, triple-, or even quadruple-duty as the ensemble shifts between roles each time they leave and reenter their intimate playground. Gordon Nimmo-Smith's (Constellation's Avenue Q) sound design is commendable. The ensembles' numerous mics never faltered nor gave feedback and each seemed mixed effectively.

AJ Guban (Constellation's Managing Director) simultaneously hits some of the highest highs and lowest lows for the creative team. On the one hand, his set design is inspired and inventive. Mixing textures, heights, and colors, Mr. Guban provides a bleak space which captures the bleakness of Chalk Circle's setting. The scenery would be easier to appreciate, however, if the lighting design were as brilliant. Let me qualify my critique by saying lighting a show in-the-round is immensely difficult as shadows can appear almost anytime anywhere. More often than not, actors were shrouded in shadow or half in their light which prevented the full impact of their moments from landing. Emoting becomes so much more difficult when one's face isn't fully visible.

A fourteen-person ensemble is a large undertaking for most productions. When dealing with such a small playing space, Constellation has twice the challenge to overcome. They do so with great aplomb. Even when all fourteen players are onstage together, the set never feels over-crowded. Each performer commits to their roles and transforms their voice, expressions and characterizations to effectively tackle the dozens of roles big and small in Chalk Circle.

As the good-natured Grusha, Yesenia Iglesias (The Arabian Nights at Constellation) demands attention. She is impossible to look away from as she commits to each action even during the smallest of scenes. While connecting with the baby, Michael, for the first time, Ms. Iglesias serves such simplistic and understated emotions which allow the moment to stand on its own merits. Even as action around her becomes more ridiculous (she is married off to a man on his death bed at one point), Yesenia keeps everything Grusha does grounded in as much reality as possible, serving as a link to life for the audience.

BWW Review: Constellation Theatre's THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE Avoids Becoming a Roundabout Affair
Yesenia Iglesias and Teresa Spencer in The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Photo by Daniel Schwartz

Leading the three-person band and narrating the story, Matthew Schleigh (Constellation's Peter and the Starcatcher) brings a necessary energy. Even when his rock baritenor voice seemed uncertain, Mr. Schleigh pulls out the musicality of the piece to avoid any song from becoming a slog. Supported by Ben Luyre on keyboard and Manny Arcinega on percussion, Mr. Schleigh infuses the music with a deeply felt beat of classic Middle Eastern music. At the end of the day, the three musicians do almost as much as Mr. Guban when it comes to setting the scene of Chalk Circle.

It cannot be overstated that the rest of the ensemble dutifully embody their roles throughout. Most notable from the supporting roles is Teresa Spencer (Constellation's Absolutely! {perhaps}) who acts as the evening's main comedic relief. Portraying the wife of a governor targeted during the uprising which spurs civil war, Ms. Spencer milks a laugh with the smallest flick of her wrist. She changes the energy in the room every time she enters, and there is a noticeable air of disappointment that accompanies each of her departures.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle remains one of the most widely produced German plays in existence. It's no wonder Brecht's play remains so popular: the central themes and conflicts are so undeniably American. Bleakness and despair seem like such easy emotions to give into most days. Taking a lesson from Grusha's book may be the best option for us today: be selfless and choose kindness.

With a running time of approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes The Caucasian Chalk Circle, presented by Constellation Theatre Company, plays through May 13, 2018. Tickets are $25-$45 and can be purchased online here or over the phone at 202-204-7741.

BWW Review: Constellation Theatre's THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE Avoids Becoming a Roundabout Affair

Sam Abney is a Washington, D.C. based arts professional. A native of Arizona, he has happily made D.C. his new home. Sam is a graduate from George Mason University with a degree in Communication and currently works for Arena Stage as a member of their Development team. He is a life-long lover of theater and is excited about sharing his passion with as many people as possible.

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