The first thing that came to mind when I learned South Coast Repertory was putting on a production of Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle on their big main stage was,What the hell are they thinking?How's this thing going to go over with the bluehaired ladies and the husbands they drag along to their season-ticket seats at SCR? Brecht, remember, was a communist who stuck with the Soviet Union (even if reluctantly) long after most sensible leftists got disgusted with Stalin's bloody purges of the 1930s. Brecht, you recall, famously and intentionally "alienated" his audiences from emotionally identifying with his characters in order to prepare said audiences for the openly didactic messages about history and oppression that form the ideological core of his plays. The Caucasian Chalk Circle, one notes, begins with an extensive prologue that details a bunch of "comrades" arguing about Soviet land use, a prologue that had its American translator, Eric Bentley, openly worried that the play was "un-American." And when the play finally settles down into its main action, it turns out to question the virtues of motherhood!What the hell are they thinking?
Perhaps they're thinking that Orange County theater—which has languished through most of the year in a muddy bog of bourgeois sentimentalism, tiresome musicals, storefront productions that are five parts ambition to two parts talent, and way too much Shakespeare—needs a bold kick in the ass, and this is just the thing to start off SCR's 2005-2006 season.
It helps that Brecht was too much an artist to allow his plays to be restrained by the straitjackets of ideology, that the winds of history that blow through his narratives are too subject to the butterfly effects of chance to satisfy any orthodox Marxist. It helps that The Caucasian Chalk Circle is funny, that it illustrates Brecht's mastery of the use of music as ironic counterpoint, and that while it is sprawlingly "epic"—covering years compared with the mere hours that pass in a Greek play or, at most, a few months in Shakespeare—it never loses thematic focus or the conviction that theater, whatever populist instruction it's supposed to offer, is there to entertain. It helps, finally, that the innovations that Brecht helped introduce to modern theater—especially the constant reminders to the audience that what's onstage is, in fact, staged, and not something real that one can or ought to lose oneself in—are now common coin in postmodern culture, ranging from the David Foster Wallace/McSweeney's crowd in contemporary fiction to reality shows on TV.
Brecht wrote The Caucasian Chalk Circle mostly in Santa Monica in the 1940s while in exile from the Nazis. (He was part of a fascinating group of European exiles who gathered in and around Pacific Palisades at the time, including Thomas Mann and Christopher Isherwood.) It's "late" Brecht, when he smoothly folded his technical innovations into narratives that hum with energy and humor and even more smoothly assimilate both an ancient Chinese fable and the biblical story about Solomonic justice into a story that—Brecht's alienation effects notwithstanding—can be extraordinarily moving. It's up to SCR to bring out the play's pleasures, of course, but it's up to the county's audiences—and I'm not talking about the bluehairs, who'll likely be scratching their scalps over it—to give the play the run it deserves. It's plays like this that, if successful, can embolden and mature the county's entire theater community. There's a lot riding on this production.