All plays have some sort of message they want to convey, but some messages are more obvious than others. This is a fact some people choose to reject: As movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn once said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” (For those under age 30, Western Union used to be a telegram delivery company. What’s a telegram? Go to your room.)
Of course, if you’re playwright Bertolt Brecht, you wear your message emblazoned on a sign hung around your characters’ necks. This he does in the prologue of Caucasian Chalk Circle, now being performed by a new troupe named the Shahrazad Theatre Company. Focused on creating immersive theater that dissolves the fourth wall between performers and audience, STC hopes to produce more works in the future with the fostering assistance of the well-established Ensemble Theatre.
The post-prologue plot outline is quite simple. A peasant girl in the Soviet Union named Grusha rescues the Governor’s abandoned baby boy, falls in love with a soldier, named Simon, and eventually has to battle for the right to keep the child when the Governor’s wife returns to claim him. But true to Brecht, there are countless other characters added to this mix as he trots out his pointed political satire and flair for the absurd. The bottom-line message of the prologue and the play clearly represent Brecht’s socio-political stance: That all things should belong to those who would do well by them. (Try to get that one through Congress.) And that there’s a difference between justice and the law for poor and rich alike, with actual justice arrived at only by chance.
This production is an uneven but determinedly earnest attempt at corralling the Brechtian style and messaging. And that is more than faint praise, since this is no easy script to harness and get moving in the same direction. The multiple characters in the piece, played by 11 actors who all take on multiple roles, range from naturalistic portrayals to highly stylized, often grotesque and masked cartoon figures.
It’s a conglomeration that sometimes works very well under the direction of Kyle Huff, and at other times gets bogged down in an effort to make every character, even small ones, throb with comical or dramatic intent. This is particularly the case in the first act of the play before intermission. Kayla Davis as Grusha is a solid but not particularly compelling presence as she hikes through the mountains with the infant, although her dalliance with Simon (a sweet August Scarpelli) does have its own charm.
The second act is crisper and funnier, as the focus shifts to the drunken lout Azdak (Robert Hawkes, who also earlier plays the Governor), who is now sitting as a judge. Hawkes uses his fine comic timing to cadge many laughs from his performance, although he is at times almost too much in control for this unhinged character. Other engaging performances are turned in by James Rankin as the singer/narrator and as Shauwa, Azdak’s assistant; Valerie Young in several roles showing off well-defined and amusing characters; Katelyn Rotuno as the harridan Governor’s wife; and Steve Vas-Hansell and Allen Branstein as a pair of “iron shirt” soldiers in the mode of Abbott and Costello.
Although there are no more shows currently planned for STC, it is hoped that they can find a way to continue their theatrical efforts. Like, for instance, with Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Talk about timely!
Caucasian Chalk Circle
Through November 12, produced by the Shahrazad Theatre Company fostered by Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, ensembletheatrecle.org