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Heroine’s Journey

The Chalk Circle. At PCPA, Saturday, February 17. Shows through
March 11.

Reviewed by Bojana Hill

Chalk.jpgBertolt 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.

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