An epic circle, intimately drawn

A classic Brecht circles around to today: Shaking the Tree's personal-sized epic "Caucasian Chalk Circle" spins a funny and pertinent tale

Gather ’round, children, for a long autumn’s tale. It’s epic, and intimate, and small-scale, and so big a whole village could hardly wrap its arms around it. It’s an interlocking set of stories, really, in five acts and a prologue, moving freely from a 14th century Chinese fable, to the Soviet Union sometime near the end of the Second World War, to right here and now. It’s frankly artificial, and lands a few resounding truths, and is funny and cruel and consoling, and very private and very political. It is not, as one artistic director recently described the contemporary theater scene with a slight whaddya-gonna-do shrug, “ninety minutes, no intermission.”

It’s a Brechtian world, round and round. Photo: Gary Norman

It is, in fact, a little over three hours, one intermission. But that’s OK: It’s Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and some things are worth a little extra time. Shaking the Tree’s new production of this 20th century classic is binge-watching in a single seating, and it somehow manages to feel both classic and contemporary without diminishing either. It delivers an old-fashioned wallop of vivid, simply staged theatricality, and the ensemble has so much energy to go with so few props in such a small space that in its expressionistic fervor it sometimes overdoes things: words get lost in the rafters as they overlap; actions tumble helter-skelter. Not very often, though, and when they do it seems a matter of epic style overwhelming the space, without the distancing that gives epic its most potent effect. Consider this a minor and almost inevitable drawback. The payoff is that the intimate is truly intimate, and sweeps the audience not just into its embrace, but also into a kind of active partnership. As the tales spin out things become clearer and clearer. The quieter moments take precedence, and an emotional gravity grabs hold.

The audience in Shaking the Tree’s small warehouse space in Southeast Portland is about as close as you can come to being part of the show without actually jumping onstage: There are just 48 seats circling the main playing area in a single row. Sometimes someone in the cast might hand you some fake paper money, or a baby in the form of a loaf of bread tucked into a braided basket. Just for safekeeping.

Chalk on blackboard, moving things along. Photo: Gary Norman

Brecht wrote The Caucasian Chalk Circle in 1944, in German, while he was living in the United States, and it had its premiere as a college production four years later, in an English translation by his friend Eric Bentley, which is the version being used here. It’s inspired by the old Chinese play Circle of Chalk but spins off in its own directions. From the distance of America Brecht was thinking about wartime Eastern Europe and fanaticism and official greed and the state’s reach into private lives and the proper ways to counter tyranny and make collective decisions, and the effects of renegade thinking and approaches to leadership, and the shaky line between idealism and cynicism, and the difficulty of making moral decisions in a corrupted and disrupted state. Does this sound familiar? Maybe that’s why the play’s being revived.

To oversimplify a complex tale: the governor’s been decapitated, and as his haughty wife rushes off to save her own life a young servant woman finds herself in charge of their baby, who’s been left behind and will perish if she doesn’t care for it. She’s become engaged to a soldier, but he’s off again to the war and she must flee into the mountains, away from the Ironshirts chasing her, where she must pretend the baby is hers and enter into a marriage with a dying man who unfortunately becomes miraculously revived when he hears the draft has ended, thus complicating her eventual reunion with her soldier. As the politics of the country shift yet again (the power structure seems by turns ruthlessly repressive and so shaky it’s falling apart) the governor’s wife, for less than maternal reasons, files suit to get her son back, and a likable rascal of a judge must hear the case, during which proceedings the spirit of Solomon seems to descend upon him. Oh. And those good peasant comrades the goat farmers and orchardists are in a squabble over who gets to use the land. Sound complicated? That’s just the basics, but it’s easy to follow as the tale unfolds.

Shaking the Tree director Samantha Van Der Merwe is devoted to a fabulist sort of theater, calling on the virtues of simple but often dazzling visual effects and an arching, often expressionistic storytelling approach that is far removed from Studio realist acting techniques. (For more insights, see Bobby Bermea’s profile of Van Der Merwe for ArtsWatch.) In the case of Chalk Circle she’s pared things down visually to a basically empty stage and a few props that become crucial to the action: some bamboo poles, some lengths of cloth that turn into a teetering bridge over a perilous mountain gorge, a few chairs, a few suitcases. This works well with Brecht, whose theater relies in part on his audiences never forgetting that they’re watching theater – the interplay of emotion and engaged intellect, he believed, is what gives the theater its power. This is Brecht in your lap: A larger space with more detailed sets and costumes might have made for a more overwhelming production, but probably not a more personal one. And the design that’s here (costumes by Alanna Hylton, lighting by Trevor Sargent) is very good for this conception of the play.

Most of the ensemble’s dozen performers play multiple roles, with only young Will Sieversten as the child, Michael, and Sami Pfiefer as Grusha, the servant who becomes his guardian, playing a single role. Grusha is the play’s moral center, the person who must carry her values through a swamp of shifting circumstances that would drive a situational ethicist dizzy. She is also, perhaps surprisingly in this dystopian place, a romantic heroine – the hope of the play, along with Michael – and Pfiefer manages this dual responsibility engagingly, blending shy delight and practical resolve. Kai Hynes plays, among other roles, her soldier lover Simon, who seems even shyer and more besotted than she.

On the road again: no rest for the war-weary. Photo: Gary Norman

There is fine work across the cast: Carlos Adrian Manzano as a variety of comically unpleasant fellows; Clara Hillier as the scheming governor’s wife; Heath Koerschgen in several bold and well-turned impersonations, among them the ill-fated governor, a drunken monk, and the apoplectic goat farmer who fears he’s being done wrong. Claire Aldridge, Luisa Sermol (her creakily chirping Granny testifying to the judge brings down the house), Joellen Sweeney, and Jessica Tidd move deftly through a variety of roles, from innkeeper to Ironshirt heavies to bandits to kids.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is something of a melodrama, and it’s common for productions to create their own songs to move the action along. At Shaking the Tree, ensemble member Sweeney is musical director, and the program credits the songs as being “conceived” by members of the ensemble. Clifton Holznagel is outstanding in the key role of the Singer, who acts as narrator of the tale, accompanying himself on acoustic mini-guitar, and also brings sly comic purpose to the plum role of Azdak, the rascal-turned-judge whose seemingly whimsical decisions are usually more subtle and humane than the zealotry of ideologues on the left or right can manage. He’s joined in the musicmaking deftly and charmingly by Briana Ratterman Trevithick, who roams the stage almost like a dancer playing her accordion (and how many times do you see that in a ninety-minute, no-intermission show?), and the entire ensemble, when called on, can kick into a rousing chorus or two.

Brecht isn’t for everyone, although he’s for a lot of people, and I’m not going to guarantee you won’t find yourself shifting impatiently in your seat at some point during the three-plus-hour ride. This is a particular sort of Brecht, defiantly stripped-down and actor-centered, and I’m not going to guarantee you won’t walk out wishing it had been a more visually rich production. (On the other hand, possibly the most misconceived Brecht show I’ve ever seen was a Threepenny Opera that seemed to want to ingratiate itself like a big lush Mame.) But what this Chalk Circle does, it does with wit and style: It makes you laugh, it makes you feel a bit, it makes you think. And that seems like a trifecta for our times.

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The Caucasian Chalk Circle continues through Nov. 4 at Shaking the Tree Warehouse, 823 S.E. Grant Street. Ticket and schedule information here.

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