The Hipgnosis Theatre Company's new production of Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle has made me look at the play with fresh eyes. Despite its uproariousness, it is often perceived as a "difficult" piece to stage, and it's not revived frequently in New York. Those who see this version — and I hope as many as possible do see it — are likely to come away with an expanded, or at least a fresh, appreciation for the vibrancy of Brecht's vision, and an equally strong admiration for Margot Newkirk's exuberant staging and the cast's excellence.
In the murky past of the Caucasus — the region, centered around the present country of Georgia, that straddles Europe and Asia — a rebellion by the corrupt "Princes" (wealthy landowners) and other malcontents overthrows a greedy but better-liked government. In the ensuing civil disorder, a kitchen maid from the household of the executed Governor finds herself caring for her former master's baby son. Fleeing through the countryside, Grusha dreams of reuniting with the young soldier she's agreed to marry, but, after several adventures and close calls, ends up having to wed a brutish, supposedly dying farmer in order to hide herself and the child from the new regime's terrifying yet ridiculous "Ironshirts" - greedy soldiers who want to get their hands on the reward money for finding the former ruler's heir.
Money and property and the corruption they engender are both the engine and the grease for the story, which certainly reflects Brecht's interest in the structure of societies and the advent of Communism. (Brecht wrote it in 1944 in the US.) His generous, if somewhat unorthodox talent and vision for drama, provide an opportunity for great stagecraft, and here they are richly realized.
Newkirk uses in-the-round staging effectively, blocking scenes every which way, molding the actors' grand, exaggerated motions and declarations into a spectacle of elevated pathos, nutty humor, and all-too-human absurdity. The thirteen actors enter and exit on all sides as they ably cover all 80-odd roles. The sonorous acoustics of the Bleecker Street Theatre's downstairs space, together with the actors' clarionlike vocal projection, ensure that audience members don't miss lines that happen to be directed away from them.