It’s a rare and welcome occurrence when arts programming — often planned months in advance — and current events collide in a moment of perfect timing. For Constellation Theatre, the company’s engaging new production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (★★★) might be just such an occasion.
An epic depicting maternal fortitude during wartime, the play opened just 48 hours after a real U.S. airstrike was launched into a distant civil war, and presents audiences with a prime chance to imagine the after-effects of toppled governments and destroyed lives. Even better, Brecht’s witty script and director Allison Arkell Stockman’s cheeky staging ensure that this mordant contemplation of apocalyptic loss isn’t also too emotionally taxing to qualify as entertainment.
Depending on how thoroughly one wants to imagine life after the bombs have fallen, set designer A.J. Guban’s immersive environment is either vividly imagined or all too real. Constellation has dubbed the show a “360º Experience,” and accordingly, Guban’s bunkers and foxholes covered in shiny, ashen grasses snake in and around the audience seating.
Consequently, the cast pops up all over the theater, and to their credit and Stockman’s, the action remains clear and focused. Brecht’s opening framework yields smoothly from a devastated village in the Caucasus Mountains to a story within the story set in old Grusinia. A singing narrator (Matthew Schleigh) sets the scene: chaos and upheaval reign throughout Grusinia as a regime violently falls.
The country’s noble elite, incited by conflict with Iran, overthrow the grand duke and his governors, including affected aristocrats Governor Abashwili (Keith Irby) and his wife Natella (Teresa Spencer). In their haste to escape with their lives and their material concerns, the Abashwili’s neglect their infant Michael. Their servant Grusha (Yesenia Iglesias), purely out of concern for the child’s safety, absconds with the baby as soldiers invade the governor’s home.
Grusha journeys across the land, tending to the baby’s needs, careful to conceal Michael’s true identity. But she soon learns that the baby was not abandoned. Natella Abashwili wants her son returned to her — even though revealing his identity could doom Michael to the same brutal fate that threatens his parents. While the Abashwili’s and other nefarious forces root out the child’s whereabouts, Grusha grows as survivor, mother and protector.
Somehow a noble kidnapper and a war refugee, Grusha confronts a series of moral quandaries and tests, constantly putting the baby’s needs before her own. The story and transporting scenery, abetted by Gordon Nimmo-Smith’s excellent sound design, provide an apt environment for contemplating her hardscrabble, post-war existence. The performances of the ensemble cast, and the play’s periodic musical narration, however, aren’t as consistently effective as the visuals.
As Grusha and Natella, Iglesias and Spencer register strong impressions, playing opposite poles of motherly kindness. Supplied with the show’s most pleasing melodies by composers Schleigh and Brian Lotter, Iglesias gives beautiful voice to the character’s resilient goodness. Her Grusha is trusting yet resourceful, and ever endearing. A good foil for the heroine, Spencer brings recognizable dimension to the hissable Natella, the sort of oblivious snob who these days might jet around the globe on the arm of a cabinet secretary.
Scott Ward Abernethy’s weaselly Prince Kazbeki, on the other hand, is an amusing caricature that doesn’t feel as fully realized. Much the same can be said of Brian Reisman’s also-amusing Jussup and several other portrayals that spin a bit too broad. The use of a fairly inexpressive puppet to portray baby Michael also proves distracting.
The music is well-played by Schleigh and a three-piece band but it’s mostly of a minor-key monotone that doesn’t inhabit a galvanizing sound or style. Nimmo-Smith’s sound cues of troops marching, guns firing, and bombs dropping do more to suggest the world of compromises and tough ethical choices that await the sons and daughters of war.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle runs to May 13 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets are $25 to $45. Call 202-204-7741, or visit ConstellationTheatre.org.
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