Christopher Lloyd has made a career of playing mad geniuses, which makes this brilliant clown a perfect fit for Azdak, the wise fool who injects some cockeyed sanity into the state-sanctioned lunacy that Brecht mocks in his epic political drama, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” And since Lloyd has appeared in more than 200 stage shows (besting his 90-plus record in film and TV shows like “Taxi” and the three “Back to the Future” movies), he doesn’t have to justify working for peanuts at a tiny not-for-profit theater in the East Village.
This is actually a return engagement for Lloyd, who previously appeared at the Classic Stage Company in a production of “Waiting for Godot.” That show put him and co-stars John Turturro and Tony Shalhoub in the company of Alan Cumming, Dianne Wiest, Mandy Patinkin, F. Murray Abraham, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ethan Hawke and other certifiable stars who have surfaced at CSC in recent years in response to invites from savvy a.d. Brian Kulick.
On the basis of past productions, it sometimes seems as if these thesps show up because they’re offered the classic roles that are their hearts’ desire — and are then given a lot of latitude in how they play their parts. If that was the strategy here, it’s paid off.
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Lloyd has an incredible affinity for Azdak and he knows exactly how to play him, taking great delight in the outrageous misbehavior of this disreputable rascal. After a military coup in his region of the Soviet Union unexpectedly elevates him to the position of town judge, Azdak wreaks havoc from the bench, passing down absurd rulings and insulting litigants while he shakes them down for bribes. But if he makes a merry mockery of the legal system, his sense of justice lets him pass fair judgment on the question of ownership (of people, as well as property) in modern society.
The case that Azdak adjudicates in Act Two — the old fable of two women who each claim to be the mother of the same child — is smartly set up and wittily staged by helmer Kulick in Act One. Keeping faith with the alienating effects that Brecht wanted for his epic theater, set designer Tony Straiges has stripped the stage bare and draped it with heroically scaled political posters in the agit-prop style of Socialist realism.
Into this wasteland comes a narrator-singer (Lloyd) trailed by a ragtag band of traveling players wearing motley costumes (by Anita Yavich) and carrying solid suitcases that do excellent duty as set pieces.
But hark! Do we not hear the mighty pipes of Mary Testa among these scruffy players? Indeed we do, throwing herself into the part of the Governor’s selfish, greedy wife and other character roles demanding a big voice and great comic style. (Lea DeLaria will step in for Testa in the final two weeks of the show’s limited engagement.)
Tom Riis Farrell, Deb Radloff, Alex Hurt, Jason Babinsky and a couple of endearing puppets complete this ensemble of actor-singers who assume multiple roles to make an entire village come to life. These versatile performers can handle Brecht’s wry political comedy while doing justice to the folksy original music that Duncan Sheik (a Tony winner for “Spring Awakening”) has set to W.H. Auden poetry.
But the sweetheart of this company is Elizabeth A. Davis, the singing-and-stomping violinist who drew eyeballs (and a Tony nomination) in “Once.” Davis wraps loving arms around the role of Grusha, the kitchen servant who rescues the infant son of the Governor’s wife during the chaos of the military coup. Thesp’s slight frame and delicate soprano suggest that the innocent young girl she plays might be too fragile to survive the trials that are in store for her in this dark folk tale.
Grusha may be endangered, but she isn’t defenseless. Brecht gives her a brave soul and a loving heart and Davis makes sure that this frail girl also has a strong backbone. And let’s not forget Azdak, who makes the rueful observation that “terrible is the temptation to do good,” but can’t resist the temptation to reward Grusha for her goodness.
It’s this kind of sweet stuff that gives cynicism a good name.