Just in Time

Photo by Ken HowardEchoes of America's two latest catastrophes—the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina—reverberate throughout South Coast Repertory's production of Bertolt Brecht's 1945 play The Caucasian Chalk Circle. That's fitting, because while one disaster is based on human greed and the other is natural, each has political roots. Governmental apathy before and after the hurricane is a sad counterpoint to the governmental arrogance fueling one terribly sorry war of liberation. Both are examples of oppression—one passive and neglectful, the other active and violent.

It's also fitting that those grim reminders surface during a Brecht play, because prodding an audience to think about external events and their political implications was critical to his concept of drama.

Director Kate Whoriskey, who helms this SCR production, obviously knows this. That's why starving citizens frustrated at governmental passivity carry signs in this production's opening scene reading “help us please,” and “I lost my home.” The shout out to New Orleans' desperate huddled masses is clear, as is the pointed satire early in the second act, when a drunkard trenchantly explains how the wealthy benefit most from war. The character may be speaking about a war in Tsarist Russia, and Brecht may have been directly attacking war profiteers in Germany and the Allied nations, but every person in the theater who can insert a Q-Tip into his or her own ear knows exactly what is being critiqued: Halliburton and Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and the oil industry.

That moment is one of several illuminating instances in a production that looks amazing but ultimately feels as cluttered as the bedroom of a 16-year-old Mensa member with ADD. In terms of spectacle, Whoriskey and crew have created a dazzling visual panoply. Tinfoil palaces that burst into flame, treacherous mountain bridges made of wire and thin paper, grotesquely exaggerated masks and costumes, hockey-stick-wielding storm troopers enacting goofy dance routines.

But the style of Whoriskey's direction often overwhelms the substance of Brecht's poetry and politics. For every choice that works—stuffed corpses of executed judges hanging in effigy—there are others that distract or don't work: Why do the scary cops carry hockey sticks? And what is up with the songs? Always problematic when it comes to Brecht—who wrote polemical speeches and scattered fragments of poetry for lyrics but left the execution of the music to each production—the musical interludes don't inspire, edify or illuminate. They're tuneless, unexciting distractions that shovel a layer of incomprehensibility onto a play whose seemingly simple, melodramatic storyline—lowly maid absconds with wealthy baby in order to raise it purely—belies both its complicated nature and the raging fire at its core, a fire ignited by an unapologetic Marxist who clearly wanted his audience to think about what it should do in a society in which the dispossessed and powerless continue to suffer due to the oppression and apathy of its leaders.

But even with its warts, this is a daring choice for a theater like SCR—as connected to the high-powered, big-moneyed world of Orange County's social and political elite as any arts institution in the county (just look at its theater names). To even contemplate a play from a writer who so aggressively critiqued the individualistic, mechanist view of the capitalist state is reason for applause, but SCR's associate artistic director John Glore says there seems to be a resurgence of interest in Brecht's plays after years of relative neglect. “Because he was an avowed Marxist and put his socialist thought into his plays, I think a lot of people may have thought that with the fall of the Soviet Union, there's nothing in his work that says much about our world,” Glore said. Any resurgence “may have something to do with the times we find ourselves in. There's a great degree of political unrest, and certainly there may be a greater desire to grapple with [Brecht's] political subject matter . . . not because he was socialist or Marxist, but because of his idea that [theater] should examine how the world works and how it should work.”

In a time of wars for the American way of life—i.e., gross overconsumption—when an enduring piece of America's cultural heritage faces extinction thanks in no small part to governmental apathy, the time to think about “how the world works and how it should work” is as pressing as ever. It may be writers like Brecht—and productions like SCR's Caucasian Chalk Circle, which, cluttered as it is, points us in a more urgent, impassioned, humane direction.


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