Review by Danny Gaisin
Whenever a critic has a bias; prejudice or affiliation with a play or performers, it behooves said critic to admit such beforehand. One supposes that an intrusive medical situation affecting one’s objectivity should also merit disclosure. I have recently developed a gastrointestinal malaise that forced me to watch about 15 minutes of Act I on the lobby monitor. Providentially, 1st year student & FOH Max Ackerman helped me discern the individual characters. My familiarity with Brecht & his play minimized being away from the actual audience. Photo by Jim Smagata UTM
E.B.F. Brecht not only was a renowned dramaturg but also director and prolific playwright. His rather short life during the first half of the 20th century was the stuff of a blockbuster novel. Influenced by both World wars, his Bavarian origins conflicted with avowed Communist leanings…philosophies that are reflected in his writings. Intellectually, his personal associations read like a ‘Who’s Who’, especially Kurt Weill of ‘Mack the Knife’ (sic) fame.
The plot, or plots of CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE are convoluted and necessitate innumerable characterizations. Consequently, the cast; though numerically large, portray numerous roles. In repertory, an actor has roles in two or more plays but have a plotline and counterparts to assist in focus and familiarity & cues. In this situation, defining 6 characters seems a Herculean challenge. This play let’s UTM’s Theatre Erindale 4th yr. students show their training & mettle.
Brecht overtly philosophizes about totalitarianism; oligarchy; irrational maternalism; extrajudicial malfeasance and the zeitgeist of his era. So, the challenge facing director ted witzel * is how to stage the play within the guidelines of intellectual property and yet still allow some thespian freedom and interpretation. His solution is two-fold. His directorial style is carrot rather than whip, so some of the theatrical idiosyncrasies that we’ve noticed observing the 4-year evolution of the undergrads are mirrored in each of their diverse interpretations. The most noticeable, a non-BB rant about the playwright; costuming and political incorrectness of such an undertaking aimed candidly & bluntly to the audience. The response was tumultuous. Witzel’s staging is an inventive art form utilizing removable cardboard backdrops; structural steel platforms and a revolving stage propelled by the characters themselves. Costuming; makeup and live on-stage orchestra all contribute.
There are about three dozen actors in the cast with many occasions where the stage seems overcrowded with characters. Each contribute full measure with results that range from elevated drama to hammy interpretations…obviously under the baton of Witzel. There are a few standout representations. The pivotal role of ‘Grusha’ who rescues the infant and nurtures him for 2 years is portrayed by Alma Sarai. She and her suitor Brett Houghton in these plus their ancillary roles are consistently able to hold the audience’s concentration. In five roles, Emily Thorne physically manifests every one of her interpretations. We lost track of Giovanna Pandulo due to her makeup and creative costuming. Animated role readings are contributed by Hershel Blatt; Rachel Van Duzer and Grzgorz Guzik. As the wily judge, Jack Comerford utilizes exaggerated but effective facial expressions plus descriptive posturing.
The fore-mentioned rant is offered by Sarah Hime who also gives yeoman reading to her four roles. Continuity throughout the three hours is conducted by the singing M/C-ing of Bryn Kennedy. Without her input, the play would of necessity be much longer and far more difficult to follow. This is an epitomic example of superior casting.
There are some apogee moments in the play. The scene wherein one actor teaches another how NOT to eat with defining style is pure Brecht, mirroring his “kemmt Fresson/Maral” lyrics from Weill’s Three Penny Opera. There are also some understated hints about the famous McCarthy ‘blacklist’ of the early fifties which forced Brecht to return to Europe.
CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE is a major undertaking and a challenge for cast; crew and audience. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but will certainly advance one’s appreciation for thespian talent, and a decisive test of resolve for its players. If they can do Brecht, they can do anyone!
The play runs until Nov. 6th.
* The lower case is intentional. Not imitating e.e. cummings or k.d. lang; but brecht himself!
as per T.W.( or rather t.w.)