Even for a classically focused theatre company like Antaeus, their new play “Caucasian Chalk Circle” feels dated.
Not dated in a period sort of way - like the play’s set in the Caucuses in the 19th Century. No, more in a ‘this production feels like it could have originally been done in Britain in the 1980’s’ sort of way. It’s got a big competent cast who sing and move furniture and create things like a long flowing river with their bodies while gurgling. It’s got that ‘we’re going for minimal staging but have a ton of ideas and a ton of set pieces’ sort of cluttered feel. It feels, at least for the first hour, like the kind of production you’ve seen in archival photos hung in the halls.
All this is a shame because Brecht should be perfect for our current political times. Just in the “Chalk Circle” there are children separated from their families. There’s a migration fleeing violence and corruption. There are plutocrats doing unspeakable things and flaunting their money while the people are left to scrape by. There is even a judge who, while seeming a bit lecherous, ends up saving us all from the overreach and incompetence of the autocrats.
Doesn’t that sound like perfect fodder for a political play for our times?
Sadly, Antaeus has taken a faithful approach that seems more respectful than revolutionary and more restored than radical.
This is the perennial challenge with old plays and Antaeus. If like Italo Calvino posits, “A classic … has not finished saying what it has to say” then the question isn’t answered by choosing a play but rather that’s where the questions need to begin. Why this play now? Why this play here? Especially for a playwright as political as Bertolt Brecht - those questions must encompass the world around us. Doing the classics isn’t enough and this “Caucasian Chalk Circle” lacks both that connection and that urgency.
Antaeus’ saving grace is their talented actors. While this show’s ensemble as a whole feels more like a junior varsity squad for the company, the saving grace of this show is Steve Hofvendahl’s performance as the judge Azdek. Mr. Hofvendahl has an acting style that’s brutally straightforward. It’s almost midwestern in its directness. It’s as if he’ll happily suffer all this theater around him but, dammit, he’s got a story to tell so can we just dispense with all this and get to it. You buy into his performance not because it’s flashy but because it’s undeniable.
As the lecherous, improbable judge at the heart of the play’s poignant ending - that’s just what you need. Someone who clearly has his flaws but can see through the artifice to deliver if not truth - a version of justice.
While the first act is something of a struggle, the simple story of the ending takes over. If you’ve never seen the show, the ending has a riff on the King Solomon splitting of the baby tale and it’s hard not to get a little emotional watching such a spectacle.
I’m not sure the strength of the ending and Mr. Hofvendahl’s performance justify the drive to Glendale but if you’re dying for some Brecht hold the politics - this might be a good two and a half hours.
“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” plays at the Antaeus Theatre Company in Glendale through August 26th.