The stage is empty, save for a mess of heavy wooden trunks, folding chairs, overturned wash basins and crates arranged in a wide, sweeping circle. There are signs of recent occupation – a pewter pitcher, several mugs sitting on a crate as if awaiting their users’ return.
One by one, the 21 actors walk on the small stage space, sitting down and filling up all of the empty wooden surfaces. They look cold and provincial, wearing heavy woolen skirts and sweaters. There’s lively bustle; the circle hums with energy. It seems the people fill the stage as much as the stage fills the stage.
This is a dress rehearsal for the Musical Theatre Department’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s play, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” which will be performed from tonight to Sunday night at 8 p.m. in the Arthur Miller Theatre.
“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” is technically a play within a play, where a group of Russian peasants put on a production that reflects their situation in post-World War II Russia. The play is modeled after the parable in the Song of Solomon in the Bible, where two women are fighting over ownership of a child.
“The chalk circle is the way they decide who is the real mother of the child – is it the real mother, or is it the woman who’s taking care of it?” said Etai Benshlomo, who plays the Corporal. “They put the child in the center of a circle made of chalk, and each mother holds onto him. They say, ‘Whoever can pull him out of the circle first is the winner.’ “
The kitchen maid, who has been keeping the child safe, ultimately lets go of the child. “She says ‘I can’t tear this child to pieces,’ and that is how they decide that she is the real mother,” he said.
But this is not all – as with many Brecht plays, there are multiple layers of the onion to be peeled. Not only is the story a modeling of the Song of Solomon, but a direct social and political examination of the post-World War II situation. The twist is that Brecht wrote the play before the war ended.
“Brecht wrote (the play) when he was in exile in the United States, so he was writing it looking in on Nazi Germany,” said School of Music & Theatre sophomore Yael Kiken.
“In the prologue, the premise is this Soviet collective deciding what to do with the land after the Nazis have been kicked out,” she said. “It’s Brecht’s response to what was going on and what he thought the aftermath of the war might be like.”
In order to accentuate the play’s extremely political and analytical message, Brecht made it disconnected and jarring, producing a realist-style effect where the audience is always aware that it is watching a play.
Brecht called it ‘Epic Theater.’ We’re basically alienating the audience from the play,” Benshlomo said. “We’re reminding the audience the entire time that this is not real. Brecht wrote plays not to make people feel, but to make them think. His theater was very social.”
The production uses a variety of different methods to create this Brecht’s style of alienation and audience awareness, one being the cast’s continual presence on stage. “The way the play is set up, none of us leave the stage, ever,” Benshlomo said. “We have this playing area, the inner circle on the stage, and once we leave it we just sit down on the stage and watch the play as ourselves, as actors.”
Another means of distancing the audience from the story is the actors acting with the awareness of archetypes – the characters in the play often have no names, and are referred in the script only as “Cook” or “Corporal” or “Singer.”
“Brecht’s (term for it is) the ‘alienation effect’ – for me, what it boils down to is the fact that the actors must never forget they are acting,” said Director Malcolm Tulip, an assistant professor in the Department of Theatre & Drama. “The goal is for the actor not to be the character. So rather than the audience saying, ‘Oh, we feel sorry for her,’ because she has no money and is being threatened by the soldiers, Brecht’s aim would be to make us think, ‘Why do people end up in poverty and have to be subjected to this by the military?’ “
The purpose of Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” is not merely to entertain, but to create social awareness.
“I think (the play is) incredibly relevant to our situation. It’s important for us not to forget that even though we’re in this bubble of the University of Michigan, there are politics and government forces out there that are controlling things,” Kiken said.
This awareness brings a heavier weight to the meaning of the play, and staying close to the significance of Brecht’s storytelling.
“We will have failed if the audience just comes away and says, ‘Well, that was a nice story,’ ” Tulip said.
The point of the play is taking the message and applying it to our own lives. “The play is about really seeing the weight of having war affect all parts of your life,” Kiken said. “We try to remember that we’re telling a story and finding our truth.”
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Today through Sunday at 8 p.m.
At the Arthur Miller Theatre
$9 with student ID