DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – There are folk tales, and then there is “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” as told by the inimitable Bertolt Brecht…by way of St. Norbert College Theatre Arts.
At the core is a story leading to a question: Who deserves a child more, his birth mother or the woman whose care has scaled jeopardy?
The way Bertolt Brecht tells the tale is through fantastical characters saying or singing or poetically embracing a thought or persona – by movement, too. His way is distinctively different.
The production of St. Norbert College Theatre Arts also is distinctively different. It is fueled by impressive command of characters along with a big dose of imagination.
Along the way, it is clear that Bertolt Brecht isn’t much for bureaucracy, privilege, jurists, the military, the nobility and so forth in a stinky laundry list. Thus: “I told you I don’t have a good heart. I’m an intellectual.” Bertolt Brecht also doesn’t shun being coarse to make a point, notably in the sexual spectrum.
The “Caucasian” of the title refers to a place: Caucasia, a region skirting the east shores of the Black Sea. The story visits mountains and chasms and farms and a palace and a courtroom and a town square with a gallows, one with a filled noose.
Visually, the production is singular. All the scene shifting and place setting is accomplished through the viewer’s imagination by way of 10 wooden platforms that are rolled and stacked and unstacked and rolled to more place-setting positions (in the mind). The clothing people wear is folklorish – baggy, worn and generally dumpy. Masks – papier mache pasty – are worn for some characters.
April Beiswenger of the faculty is the visual whiz in the creative corps. Noah Simon, a visiting pro this school year, finesses a performance landscape that includes a lot of take-charge acting. Prominent:
+ Graham Dunbar, as a narrator/storyteller and sometimes characters in the story. He weaves throughout the aisles and around the stage, sometimes playing guitar and most times letting loose pithy thoughts of Bertolt Brecht on all manner of hot-potato topics.
+ Natalie Elfner, as the young woman who carries an abandoned baby boy through a multitude of desperate challenges by people and places, always using her wiles to stay a half-step ahead of doom.
+ Fiona Laffey, as a corrupt, voyeuristic judge – taking the position with no qualifications – whose decisions are akin to stops on wheels of fortune, including one for the momentous determination at the climax.
+ Steve Westergan (of the faculty), in fraught-with-energy roles that include a decadent cleric and a deposed judge/serial killer.
All around are students responding to multiple roles in this veering, absorbing story with a chaotic take on what theater is. They seem to be fascinated by exploring the mindset of Bertolt Brecht – scary brilliant and anti-authoritarian.
“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” is an experience and an adventure in concept and presentation.
Oh yes, it’s also a play-within-a-play, though Bertolt Brecht never returns to the beginning bit, a diss on bureaucratic congestion.
Running time: Two hours, 17 minutes
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 5; 2 p.m. Nov. 6; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10, 11 and 12. The Nov. 6 performance will be followed by a discussion with the cast and crew.
Creative: Playwright – Bertoldt Brecht, with translation by Alistair Beaton; director – Noah Simon; scenographer – April Beiswenger; sound designer – Bruce Glassco; technical director – Brittney Fritz; stage manager – Jacinta Maslanka; assistant stage manager – Valeri Cohen; assistant lighting designer – Daphne Johnson; mask designer – Molly Kubica; master carpenter – Maria Miller; graphic designer – Maddy Brisbane; run crew – Lily Wrangler, Peter Lim; fight choreographer – Greg Pragel; movement assistance – Andre Megerdechian; movement captain – Jacinta Maslanka
+ Arkady Chiadze, the Singer – Graham Dunbar
+ Grusha Vashnadze, a serving girl – Natalie Elfner
+ Azdak, the village scribe – Fiona Laffey
+ Georgi Abashvili, the Governor of Grusinia – Benjamin Petropoulos
+ Natella Abashvili, the Governor’s Wife – Violet Hagen
+ Kazbeki, the Fat Prince – Kit Sanders-Mikkelson
+ Christopher Gureski – Simon Chachava, a soldier – Christopher Gureski
+ Shalva, the Adjutant – Nathan Birch
+ The government expert – Jacqueline Stumpf
+ Jussup – William Mlenar
+ Jussup’s Mother – Jordyn Otradovec
+ Shauva, a policeman – Janny Roberts
+ Farmer’s Wife – Kimberly Jaimes
+ A doctor, a lawyer – Steve Westergan
+ A soldier, a Young Lady – Kenan Wylie
+ Michael Abashvili – Molly Kubica
NEXT: Knight Theater: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” musical, Jan. 26-29. Theatre Studies: “Antigone” by Sophocles, March 30-April 2.
THE VENUE: The 190-seat Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts, 315 3rd Street, De Pere. The space has an amphitheater feel with its sloped seating area. The stage is one-of-a-kind thrust stage, meaning it “thrusts” into the audience space. Seating is on fabric seats of the college’s dark green color, with metallic backs and wood arm rests. Handrails are placed in stairway aisles leading to seats. Above can be seen the “innards” of a theater for lighting and other technical needs. The production booth is on the second level above the audience entry in a rear corner. People in front rows can practically reach out and touch performers when the performers are on the stage lip. Any seat in the theater is close to the action. The space is busy all year around with community and campus productions.
THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. In December 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee of the airline. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had many friends in the greater Green Bay community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.