Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, at American Conservatory Theater

(Rene Augesen, Nick Childress and Omoze Idehenre.  Photo by Kevin Berne.)

When a narrative at last emerged in ACT's well-funded production of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the audience's relief was palpable.  I felt ashamed of mine: I wanted to appreciate, if not understand, the fragmented images unfolding before me in the play's first scene.  Unable to do so, I concentrated on admiring the energy and versatility of the ensemble, most of whom play many roles in rapid succession, with few offstage breaks.  Particularly impressive were Rene Augesen and Anthony Fusco, ACT "core acting company members," who, for me, redeemed themselves from the theater's poorly directed (and ill-conceived?) world premiere of Edward Albee's At Home At The Zoo last summer.  

The trouble is, the story we finally hung our hats on ties itself up in too neat a bow.  In the heat of revolution, Grusche (the smoldering Omoze Idehenre) rescues an abandoned child -- the child of the overthrown governor for whom she worked as a servant.  Much as she'd initially like to, she can't find anyone else to care for him and so takes him on herself -- sacrificing her beloved Simon (Nick Childress) in the process.  Years later, the inevitable custody battle ensues, and to pit nature vs. nurture, the judge (the natural Jack Willis), employs the "chalk circle," whereby the alleged mothers compete in tug-of-war with the child as the rope.

That Grusche wins not only her child but also her Simon belies the deconstructed nature of the play's form.  The relief I felt earlier when characters finally materialized and storylines cohered suddenly evaporated.  Surely a world in which stagelights plunge from the ceiling and thunderous blasts detonate from the sound system -- all without explanation -- can not resolve thus!  I thought.  Is this ending a joke?  Is there more to come?  Walking home from the theater, I wished there had been -- but perhaps that isn't the worst criticism one can level against a theatrical production.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle continues through March 14th at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets ($10 - $82) are available by phone at (415) 749-2228 or online at