Thursday, March 18, 2010

"The Caucasian Chalk Circle" at ACT: Would Brecht Have Loved It?

A week ago I went to see the John Doyle-directed production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle at ACT. (By the way, this is how you know the American theater has come down with a crippling case of "premier-itis": the posters for this show advertised it as a "world premiere!" Yes, it's a new translation/adaptation... but it's still Brecht!) The play, in true epic theater style, requires a huge cast of characters--many of them playing very short parts--but, due to the budget constraints of the modern theater, this staging used just 9 actors.

I am not sure how well this worked, and how much it related to some of the problems I had with the production. On the one hand, I never wished for there to be more bodies onstage filling out the scenes, and I thought the actors who played multiple roles did a good job of distinguishing their different characters from one another. Brecht was all about storytelling and breaking the fourth wall and drawing attention to theatrical artifice, so, while modern productions of many older plays trim down the cast size and require extensive doubling, this works especially well for Brecht's plays.

On the other hand, I thought the play was sometimes confusing--though the central characters' predicaments were always clear, the play takes place in the middle of a war somewhere in the Caucasus Mountains, and I was confused throughout about who was supposed to be fighting whom. (One could perhaps read this as a deliberate choice, a comment about the futility of all wars. But mostly it bugged me that I was sure Brecht had written a play that made sense, but nobody in the production seemed concerned with making everything clear to the audience!) And I wonder, maybe I would have been less confused if there'd been less doubling--particularly in the first few scenes, as I struggled to get my bearings on the story?

Also, though I said that the actors did a good job of distinguishing their characters from one another, they sometimes needed to do this by means of accents, wacky physicality, etc. For instance, when René Augesen played the governor's wife, she spoke with a déclassé New Jersey accent; and in her scene as a noblewoman fleeing the city, she used a languid Southern accent. My theatergoing companions found this very distracting--"hammy," they said, and also reinforcing unfortunate stereotypes about New Jerseyans, Southerners, etc. I argued that this was a necessary consequence of having only 9 actors--if ACT had been able to afford a bigger cast, such external tricks to differentiate the characters would have been less needed. (Which raises the question: in theaters' ongoing quest to save money by producing small-cast shows that require extensive doubling, are they shooting themselves in the foot? Are they turning off audiences, when people see hammy acting from actors who have to play multiple roles?)

Then I remembered that Brecht hated "realistic" acting! His whole idea was to make clear to the audience that the actors are not "becoming" a character, they are "demonstrating" that character. All the terms I had learned in college came flooding back: "alienation effect," "gestus." Weren't the Caucasian Chalk Circle actors doing that, to some extent? Mightn't Brecht have loved Augesen's use of a New Jersey accent as shorthand for "this character is trashy and nouveau-riche"? (Or, because I'm not an expert on Brechtian acting techniques, would he have preferred that Augesen had found some other way to convey the governor's wife's essential qualities of being callous, self-centered, frivolous? A way that didn't rely on stereotypes about regional accents?)

And my theatergoing companions and me: had we simply seen some bad, hammy acting? Or had we seen a perfect example of epic-theater acting, exactly the kind of thing that Brecht would have wanted--and the fact that we didn't like it just proves that we are too hopelessly bourgeois to ever appreciate the Epic Theater?

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