“The Caucasian Chalk Circle”

Yale Repertory Theatre

Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” in a fine new translation by James and Tania Stern and W. H. Auden, is currently being given an altogether splendid production by the Yale Repertory Theatre. Being unfamiliar with this work, I did not know quite what to expect when coming to see this show. I am happy to report that Bertolt Brecht’s classic work is entirely accessible and quite striking and I think it will satisfy both Brecht enthusiasts and those, like me, who are newcomers to this play.

Director Liz Diamond has done a marvelous job of straddling the line between the 1940s (when the play was first presented) and the modern age (there are some characters who use cellphones). She has also worked wonderfully well with her designers (especially scenic designer Chika Shimizu) in creating a bleak, dark wasteland of a world in which to set Brecht’s classic play. What’s more, the cast is uniformly stellar, with two particularly stunning performances by leads Shaunette Renee Wilson and Steven Skybell. Make your way to the Yale Repertory Theatre to see “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” for this is a truly satisfying and unexpectedly hopeful theatrical experience.

One of the biggest triumphs of this production is the performance of Shaunette Renee Wilson as the lead character, Grusha. We follow Grusha, a servant, from the beginning when she saves the life of her employer’s infant and spends the large portion of the play trying to keep both her and the baby alive. This is quite a journey and Shauneet Renee Wilson is both radiant and strong as this character and there is a beautiful transparency to her acting that immediately endears her to the audience. It is stated in the program that this actress is a second-year MFA candidate at the Yale School of Drama; based on her powerful work here, she has quite a bright future ahead of her.

“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” is also blessed with a second protagonist, of sorts, Steven Skybell, as the show’s narrator throughout and, in the second act, a character named Azdak, who ultimately becomes an unconventional judge. Slipping in and out the action and speaking (and often times singing) directly to the audience, Steven Skybell is a figure of strength and proves to be a standout in an altogether flawless group of actors. And, not to give too much away, this actor also becomes, in his own way, as heroic a character as Shaunette Renee Wilson’s Grusha.

But “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” is most certainly not a two-character play. There is also particularly wonderful work by Jonathan Majors, Jesse J. Perez, Chivas Michael, and Drew McVety in supporting parts. Mention also must be made of the adorable Julyana Soelistyo in a variety of roles; I have seen this actress do great work in “The Glorious Ones” and “On the Town” in New York and she is equally skilled here.

“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” at the Yale Repertory Theatre is a darkly beautiful production, with sets with jagged edges and the use of bold projections, as well as striking lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge and ideal costumes by Soule Golden. This show also employs new music by composer David Lang that perfectly complements Bertolt Brecht’s words and lyrics. Director Liz Diamond has melded all of these elements, as well as her terrific cast, into a superb whole and offers the audience quite a vision of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” It is worth making a trip to the Yale Repertory Theatre to see this new production of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” for it shines a memorable and ultimately bright light into one of Bertolt Brecht’s most seminal works.

“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” continues performances at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT through April 11, 2015. For tickets, please visit www.yalerep.org or call the box office at (203) 432-1234.

By Zander Opper

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