Last Friday night, beset by boredom, I decided to attend a production of Brechtâ€™s The Caucasian Chalk Circle in which most of the characters were played by life-sized puppets. I donâ€™t know what I expected, but I didnâ€™t get it. What I got instead was a spectacularly odd experience: puppets singing, dancing, and spouting Marxist dogma. The cumulative effect was hallucinatory and disturbing. It was like watching an unaired episode of Sesame Street in which Elmo is brutally executed by guerilla soldiers.
Brechtâ€™s plays balance a studied anti-realism with a cruel insight into human nature and social injustice. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a peasant girl named Grusha decides to care for an abandoned baby whose noble family has been targeted for execution by a revolutionary army. Sheâ€™s chased through the Caucasus Mountains, terrorized, starved, sold into marriage, and nearly killed. (At the end of the show, the puppets do a happy dance.) The fairytale simplicity of the plot is undermined by the very real cruelty and terror that it contains. Stolid citizens disintegrate into cowards at the sight of armed guards. Decent people gouge and starve each other in order to survive. War claims lives and leaves scars. The play doesnâ€™t have any clear heroes, except for Grusha, and she isnâ€™t always bright enough to make good decisions. This is not childrenâ€™s theater.
Unfortunately, the production wasnâ€™t suited to its subject matter. Ralph Leeâ€™s Mettawee River Theatre Company are skilled surrealists, and certain aspects of their play were absolutely beautiful: they managed to pull off a sweeping epic with a large cast, using a bare wooden frame for a set, less than a dozen actors, and practically no props (unless you count the puppets). In one scene, Grusha has to cross a rotten bridge over a ravine; the actress held a doll on a stick and moved her slowly across a toy bridge, and it worked. However, by treating the play with devices more commonly used for kidsâ€™ entertainment, the company accented the magical side of the play at the expense of its realism, even though the realism gives the text its heat. This muddled and blunted the effect of the play. The actors were also a little too broad. The play is funny, but its comedy is harsh. (Sample joke: an ancient couple, married for decades, applies for a divorce. The reason? â€œWe donâ€™t like each other.â€ How long have they disliked each other? â€œSince the beginning.â€ Human misery + human stupidity = funny!) However, the actors played up all the wrong beats, and the audience laughed only once or twice, at the most obvious moments. It seemed that they had come to see a different play.
The evening played like a bad date: a good drama and a good theater company met, only to find out that they were totally wrong together. However, the Mettawee River Company comes to New York every September, and one can only hope that next fall theyâ€™ll choose a play that fits. - Sady O.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is playing through Sept. 18 at St. John the Divine, 111th St. & Amsterdam Ave. For more information, call 212-929-4778.
Ms. Sady O. is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. She also writes the Brain Porn Culture Blog.