The Chalk Circle. At PCPA, Saturday, February 17. Shows through March 11.
Reviewed by Bojana Hill
Bertolt Brecht wrote The Chalk Circle in 1944 while he was a German exile living in the United States. Based on an ancient Chinese story, The Chalk Circle is a modern parable with a happy ending. While this positive resolution may be atypical for Brecht, its non-linear plot and episodic structure are surely recognizable as his own. PCPA’s production brings the play’s universal themes into a contemporary setting, with costumes and music both suggesting an epic journey.
The original version was set in German-occupied Russia, but for this production the play’s locale has been left imprecisely defined by a mish-mash of eclectic clothing — Eastern Orthodox robes, Turkish turbans, ancient Persian tunics, and paramilitary uniforms — that allude to many places and many time periods. The narrator begins with “Once upon a time …” and comments on the various characters’ decisions throughout. At the center of the play is Grusha (Vanessa Ballam), a young kitchen maid in the governor’s palace. When the governor’s brother stages a coup on Easter Sunday — resurrection replaced by insurrection — the governor’s wife is forced to flee, abandoning a newborn son, Michael. With his father killed and his mother gone, the swaddled baby is picked up by Grusha who sneaks away amid the turmoil. For the next two years, Grusha cares for the boy as if she were his mother, heroically enduring poverty, humiliation, and cruelty. Persecuted by the Ironshirts, a desperate Grusha crosses a broken rope bridge above a 2,000-foot abyss. Still, Grusha’s character is not idealized: She breaks a promise and gets married for the sake of shelter and protection.
The third act introduces a judge, Azdak (Heidi Ewart), who is at first seemingly disconnected from the story of Grusha. We learn that Azdak dispenses justice to serve the poor and punish the rich. The two stories then merge in a dramatic trial to resolve the guardianship of Michael. The dilemma echoes that which was once posed for Solomon in the biblical story. A chalk circle is drawn and Michael is placed in the middle, so that Grusha and the governor’s wife might each pull him toward her. The outcome affirms our hopes for justice, as, in the narrator’s words, “what there is shall belong to those who are good for it.”
Ballam is very earnest in the role of Grusha, and her singing talent is considerable. Kathleen Mary Mulligan, as the narcissistic wife of the governor, delivers a strong performance — as does Ewart who is comical as Azdak.