The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Presented by Vanderbilt University Theatre
Through Feb. 20 at Vandy’s Neely Auditorium
For ticket info, call 322-2404
A huge theatrical figure, German dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) also had quite an eventful personal life. He was born with a congenital heart condition, endured his mother’s early death from cancer, became well versed in various languages and cultures and classical literature, gained notoriety as a chronic womanizer, and was a stern critic of the bourgeoisie (nevertheless remaining financially supported for years by his bourgeois father). Controversies and contradictions aside, his plays still endure: Through such works as Mother Courage and Her Children, The Threepenny Opera and The Good Woman of Setzuan, Brecht realized a vision for what became known as epic theater, which breaks with Aristotelian dramatic concepts (linear story line, suspension of disbelief, progressive character development) and replaces them with episodic plot structure and cumulative character development. Beyond that, a Brecht play’s greater aim is to persuade its audience into a social action that challenges common ideologies.
Thematically, the Brecht canon is certainly thought-provoking. But whether his liberal, socialist notions ever really changed the world remains a subject of debate. No matter, his structural experiments continue to demand analysis and respect, and we see this writ large in the Vanderbilt University Theatre’s current student production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
The play is one of allegory, symbol and didacticism, revolving first around peasants and a land dispute, and later relating two fables that challenge notions of ownership and justice. If the base material sounds a little turgid, it certainly doesn’t play out that way in the four-sided quasi-intimacy of Neely Auditorium. Director Jeffrey Ullom has assembled a young, earnest and energetic ensemble of nearly 30, whom he turns loose WrestleMania-style in a moody melange of mock stoicism, somewhat primitive group dynamics and insistent yet sensitive storytelling laced with surprising humor and pointed satire.
Cacophonous sounds form the production’s backdrop: frenetic, discordant piano, Eastern musical tableaux, a piercing factory whistle. Meanwhile, the castdressed in a peasant chic that might have come out of a Gap catalogexecute Ullom’s consistently interesting staging ideas, which emphasize physicality and nonstop pacing. To make things even more interesting, Ullom has spiced the production with double-voiced narration (i.e., two actors reciting the same lines simultaneously) and the weirdly brooding sensibility of a Michael Jackson video from the pop star’s heyday.
Consistent with the countercultural ambience, the audience is handed no programs and the actors take no curtain call. All are equals in Ullom’s conceptual sphere, and when the performers aren’t in the playing area, they take their place outside the action, becoming yet another row of audience members (albeit frozen in a floor-bound stupor).
The cast is marvelously committed to the cause, and in that light it seems almost sacrilegious to single out individuals, lest the Brechtian spell be broken. So without meaning to slight any one of the uniformly stalwart and very admirable students, it must be said that Dory Tucker is affecting as the surrogate mother, Grusha; so is Alex Kane as her nemesis, the governor’s wife, Natella. Brandon Rios makes the most out of a couple of character roles, and a septet of supporting femalesMaredith Close, Laura Peterson, Alexandra Karram, Mandy Franklin, Claire Epstein, Beth Cottrill and Rachel Kaminerprovide an alert vocal framework for a lot of the passing action. Best of all is Haas Regen as the licentious wildman judge, Azdak. A young man with coarse good looks and a commanding, versatile voice, Regen dominates Act 2 with barely controlled dramatic flair. His is a remarkable performance, worthy of serious attention by any standard.
University theater is certainly alive and well in Nashville, and the students at Vanderbilt prove it with this, the hippest show in town at the moment.
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