News Column

Just a pale 'Chalk' outline

May 31, 2013

YellowBrix

By ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

YOU can see why theater companies are drawn to "The Caucasian Chalk Circle": Writing at the end of WWII, Bertolt Brecht brought together elements from an old Chinese tale and the Judgment of Solomon, mixing humor and pathos, political allegory and vaudevillian bits.

That probably helped Classic Stage Company draw talent like pop composer Duncan Sheik ("Spring Awakening"), who set W. H. Auden's lyrics to music, and actor Christopher Lloyd - not such an oddball choice since the star of "Back to the Future" and "Taxi" started his career in experimental theater.

In the excitement everybody overlooked a pesky fact: With its many characters and almost as many settings and moods, "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" is devilishly hard to pull off. It's the Venus' flytrap of plays, luring in ambitious troupes only to eat them alive. Director Brian Kulick and his muddled revival are just the latest victims.

The play takes place in the imaginary war-torn country of Grusinia, which Kulick makes look like the USSR at the end of communism. This means a crumbling statue of Lenin, peeling propaganda giving way to Coca-Cola and Marlboro posters, and a harried heroine, Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis), in rubber boots and an apron over her dress- the picture of Eastern Bloc peasant chic. Too bad Davis, last seen as the foxy violin player in "Once," underplays everything with near-catatonic results.

Grusha rescues an infant abandoned by the governor's wife (an annoyingly shrill Mary Testa), and sets off on misadventures in the countryside.

Save for Davis, who sticks to Grusha, each cast member takes on several roles. They fail to make an impression in any of them.

Except, that is, for Lloyd, the one reason to see this show. He dominates the second act as Azdak, a wily ruffian arbitrarily promoted to judge. With his bald pate, stick-out ears and gnarled toes, Lloyd gives us a magistrate who follows an idiosyncratic code of honor - even when deciding who gets the child, Grusha or his birth mother.

That final scene is the single best part of the evening, a tense, emotionally draining moment that almost makes you forget Sheik's nondescript melodies and the flat-footed shenanigans of the early scenes.

Typical is the awkward way theatergoers are brought onstage as extras in an underpopulated scene.

"Help us to make for a proper wedding that would make Bertolt Brecht proud," a cast member proclaimed in a broad Russian accent.

Brecht might have preferred a better production.

elisabeth.vincentelli@nypost.com

Originally published by ELISABETH VINCENTELLI.

(c) 2013 The New York Post. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

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