Off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company offers up a new production of Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" starring Christopher Lloyd. Time Out New York contributing critic David Cote filed the following review.
Quick: what springs to mind when you think of 20th-century German playwright Bertolt Brecht? Didactic and dry moralizing? Raspy singing? Darkly ironic social commentary? Or boredom, perhaps? I'm afraid that Brian Kulick's dutiful and dull staging of "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" at Classic Stage Company will not dispel these negative stereotypes. Unfortunately, CSC provided no video, just production stills.
Kulick starts with an interesting frame. Although he uses the 1945 translation, with lyrics by W.H. Auden, Kulick sets the action in a metaphorical post-Gorbachev USSR, with the Communist empire on the brink of catastrophic capitalism. After intermission, a giant Coca-Cola logo replaces faded Soviet Realist murals.
Such modern imagery is window dressing for the episodic narrative: Maid Grusha, played by pretty, pert and pure-of-heart Elizabeth A. Davis, rescues the abandoned infant of the governor's wife, played by the bombastic Mary Testa, who flees the palace during a peasant uprising. Succumbing to the terrible temptation to do good, Grusha eventually bonds with the baby and claims him as her own.
The second half of Chalk Circle tracks the unlikely ascent of one Azdak, played by character actor Christopher Lloyd, a buffoonish clerk who finds himself thrown into judge's robes by the revolution. Lloyd has moments of lusty wildness, but his patented shaggy, hoarse delivery muddies the character's slyness and humor. Azdak's brief time on the bench is marked by rough social justice, but Lloyd's rambling turn shows too great an error in judgment.
A fresher translation, a better ensemble and more engaging music might have made "Chalk Circle" come alive. I'm pretty sure Brecht's famous "distancing effect" is about preventing cheap emotional connection with the characters, not driving people away at intermission.