Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires

Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Yale Repertory Theatre

Also see Fred's review of Playing the Assassin

Shaunette Renée Wilson
As it transpires in a wondrous, complicated production at Yale Repertory Theatre through April 11th, Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle (written in 1945) is predominantly a story of nurturing which centers around the fate of a young child. The translation by James and Tania Stern with W.H. Auden is actualized through some impressive stylized movement and timely music composed by David Lang. Liz Diamond, whose tasks are considerable, ably directs this epic work which includes high drama, conflict, and a measure of humor, too.

The setting is Grusinia, somewhere within the Caucasus region, and this might be the present day—or years ago. People are struggling for political and personal power. Brecht, a passionate writer who advocated peace, weaves a theme which finds Natella (Brenda Meaney), who is wife of the Governor, racing away from the country and leaving her infant son behind. As the play unfolds, Michael (played on opening evening by Fred Thornley IV and also, at various performances, by Kourtney Savage)) grows into a young boy. Grusha (Shaunette Renée Wilson), who is a kitchen maid, protects the child so he will not fall prey to a new regime. Grusha will have to traverse glacier-like terrain to get to the other side of the mountain since the city is in revolt. Grusha will risk her own existence as she struggles to navigate a treacherous bridge and almost relinquishes her relationship with Simon (Jonathan Majors).

Eventually, the political circumstances change and the former governor's party will be reinstated. There are two soldiers who make the trek to locate Grusha and Michael and bring them to trial. The judge is Azdak (Steven Skybell), a man known to accept bribes and one who has his own notions of fairness. The chalk circle figures at the end of the production—helping Azdak to decide where the child belongs.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a rich, strong commentary about social justice. Morality might transcend conventions of the law. Language, plot, and theme coalesce as Brecht pushes the audience to consider choices between societal imposition and personal ethics and lives. While there are moments of reality, he does not seek to replicate what is literally true in everyday goings-on. Brecht was a poet, songwriter, playwright, teacher, director, and theorist. He empathized with those who were in sorrow, those who suffered.

This production begins with words delivered by The Singer (Skybell.) Performing as narrator, that character must supply linkage so that one is able to follow the storyline. Skybell often talks through his passages and it is unclear whether this is by his design or that of Diamond, directing. Shaunette Renée Wilson has a lovely voice which she employs, from time to time, as she sings.

Most of the fine casting requires actors to play one or more roles and appear in ensemble as well. While the script includes subplots, the most compelling drama centers around Grusha. She loves this child and will risk most anything, including other relationships, to protect and nurture Michael. Wilson's performance is magnetically emotive. Grusha represents virtues of a loving mother. She will sacrifice and she will risk. When the so-called Ironshirts are confrontational, she stands up. Natella is self-serving, a woman who first thinks of her own situation. Toward the conclusion of the play, Azdak, otherwise almost absurdist, is able to make a heartfelt and wise decision.

Brecht provides a play which is anti-capitalist. He is a writer whose compassion for humanity is heroic. There is no question that The Caucasian Chalk Circle presents challenges for the theatergoer since it is rambling. Finally, however, there is high reward for staying with this multi-dimensional show.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through April 11th, 2015. For tickets, call (203) 432-1234 or visit

Photo: Carol Rosegg

- Fred Sokol

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