Sarah Roa and Luke Johnson.  Photo: Nancii Bernard
Sarah Roa.  Photo: Nancii Bernard

UBC BFA Acting graduating year class.  Photo Nancii Bernard

Theatre at UBC 
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
by Bertold Brecht translated by James and Tania Stern with W.H. Auden Original music by Richard Link

Dates and Venue 19 September - 5 October 2013, Wed - Sat 7:30 pmTelus Studio Theatre, Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, UBC

Director Stephen Heatley Musical direction Richard Link Set Design Molly Lai Lighting Design Scott Zechner Costume Design Laura Fukumoto Stage Manager Sarah Melo

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

In good Brechtian fashion demonstrating the artifice of theatre, UBC’s performance of the Caucasian Chalk Circle began with the entire cast walking across the stage announcing the play’s title and credits. Props stood ready at the entrances and exits, instruments were laid out or hung on walls, coconut shells and other sound effect devices lay close at hand. This was a showcase piece challenging the multiskilled graduating class to play many parts.

Brecht dealt in stereotypes, the rich in this play being always the bad guys. The poor are by and large equally unpleasant, being variously violent, vicious, avaricious, weak cheats and liars but there are mitigating circumstances. Simon and Grusha, our hero and heroine, alone are true. And then there is Azdak, the clown, the outsider, a life-force, who is made a judge through a stroke of whimsy and who by using the a law book as a cushion, makes sure that he cannot be accused of not using the written law in his courtroom.

Upon the overthrow and death of the governor, his wife escapes with as many of her fine clothes as she can, completely forgetting her baby. The servants too rush to save themselves. Afraid of being accused of kidnapping or worse, none of them will save the baby except Grusha. “The temptation to do good is terrible,” sing the chorus while she struggles against actors, her conscience, blocking her escape route. Grusha’s epic journey with the baby through a multitude of hardships constitutes the remainder of the first part. Sarah Roa’s performance is one of steely determination. Motherly she is not, some of the other actors were far more maternal, but there was no doubting her gradually increasing affection and ultimately her genuine love for the child.

If Grusha is the only character to escape her stereotype and to progress from being driven by a sense of loyalty and duty to being moved by love, Azdak is the only character who is self-aware. Lara Deglan dominated most of the second part as the drunken and erratic judge with no knowledge of the law but an exquisite eye for fairness. She was just possibly even better in her other major part playing trumpet.

Amongst a number of very good performances, Luke Johnson was excellent as Simon, straight and true from the start, and in a several other smaller parts. Naomi Vogt had the leering macho Corporal to a T.

The music, composed by Richard Link for this production and this particular cast, was tuneful, varied and energetic. All cast members played or sang, mostly well. Daniel Meron played a mean trombone in addition to his performances as both a doctor and a lawyer and Grusha’s scurrilous brother. Morgan Churla, Nick Preston and Natasha Zacher, shared piano duties; surprisingly Roa joined in on trumpet and Luke Johnson charmed with the guitar. Excellent diction from the chorus kept the storyline clear and there were one or two lovely voices.

The costumes by Laura Fukumoto were reminiscent of Eastern Europe peasant dress in unbleached whites and subdued browns, blues and greens shot with with dashes of rose. Sumptuous Chinese silks denoted the rich. Set design by Molly Lai was an extremely spare circular space with the exits sometimes dressed with stone arches or long banners. Lighting by Scott Zechner was subtle and unobtrusive.

Stephen Heatley’s direction kept the action moving along for the most part, in what is a very long play. His decision to make the Singer’s role one for chorus infused the entire play with the idea of ensemble within which individual parts stand out and into which the audience is drawn. His decision to cut the surrounding Socialist conundrum which Brecht wrote to open and close the play makes this production a fable for our own times.

© 2013 Elizabeth Paterson