Review: ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’

There are two protagonists in Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," and they embody overlapping plans for deposing the wealthy classes. In its current production, Hipgnosis Theater does very well by one of these figures and passably so by the other.

There are two protagonists in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” and they embody overlapping plans for deposing the wealthy classes. In its current production, Hipgnosis Theater does very well by one of these figures and passably so by the other.

Director Margot Newkirk unifies all the pieces with a faithfully Brechtian aesthetic: When a baby is nothing but an artfully folded blanket and a rickety bridge is suggested by an actor’s wobbling arms, we are constantly aware that we’re watching a performance.

And a skilled performance at that. Using only their bodies, voices and a few props — there’s no set whatsoever — the cast evokes both the landscape of ancient China, where the parable-play is set, and the symbolic function of their characters.

The standout perf comes from Rachel Tiemann as Grusha, a peasant woman who raises her master’s baby after he is executed and his materialistic wife (Ayanna Siverls) flees without her child. Grusha is the ideal of the noble servant, whose unshakable morality comes from a life of hard work. It’s no accident that she raises a child forsaken by the wealthy: The baby is the future, and when the lower classes protect it, there is hope.

Fittingly, Tiemann plays Grusha as an archetype of fortitude. She stands with feet planted wide, keeping her face locked with righteous indignation even when fleeing from government thugs. Yet her voice rocks with emotion. To keep the baby safe, Grusha must hike the mountains of China, marry a man she doesn’t know and desert her true love (Douglas Scott Streater). It would do the play a disservice if she drained all the feeling from that experience.

By locating most of her emotion in her voice, however, Tiemann strikes that tricky Brechtian balance: She communicates feeling without begging the audience to empathize with her character. We’re free to enjoy the story and analyze it, too.

Not bad for a young thesp who doesn’t yet have her Equity card. Granted, Tiemann muddies some of Grusha’s political monologues, but she provides a focal point for all her scenes.

As Azdak, the play’s other central character, John Kevin Jones is less convincing in a more complex role. Whereas Grusha is fast and true, Azdak represents another side of political revolution: willing deception. As a shadily appointed judge, he always sides with the poor, helping Grusha to keep her child. Yet he also drinks like a fish and flagrantly abuses his power.

Jones captures his political indignation, particularly when Azdak thunders about the soiled lives of the rich. His comic bluster gives nice ballast to Tiemann’s righteousness, and it creates funny bits with the mindless soldiers who can’t decide if they want to praise Azdak or arrest him.

But Jones’ high dudgeon steamrolls complex scenes. Subtle points about the shifting power in the town — and Azdak’s willingness to woo new leaders — are lost in his shout-it-out delivery. His co-stars follow suit, and several moments in the production descend into screaming.

Still, most of Brecht’s ideas are clear, and Hipgnosis makes them entertaining to consider.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Theaters at 45 Bleecker; 99 seats; $18 top


A Hipgnosis Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Bertolt Brecht. Directed by Margot Newkirk.


Costumes, Krista Thomas-Scott; lighting, Robert Nguyen; original music, Demetrios Bonaros; choreography, Kimberly Braton; props, Jessica Lynn Hinkle; fight direction, John Kevin Jones; production stage manager, Robert Nguyen. Opened April 26, 2008. Reviewed April 29. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.


Grusha - Rachel Tiemann Azdak - John Kevin Jones Fat Prince - John Castro Natella Abashvilli - Ayanna Siverls Simon Chachava - Douglas Scott Streater Singer - Demetrios Bonaros
With: Hal Fickett, Colleen Kennedy, Matthew Kinney, Elizabeth Mirarchi, Dennis J. Paton, Pharah Jean-Philippe, Richard Ugino.
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