There again is that tell-tale rusty chain-link fence. The stage is something of a junk yard. The lighting is harsh; strip lights exposed. It could be a stage representing a work camp in Germany, or the East Village of disaffected youth. It could be Rent or American Idiot. This time it's Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a modernist play written in 1944, which smells a little musty today. I could submit that the theater of Brecht is itself obsolete. War is hell. Heads of state are immoral. Justice is corrupt. Tell us something we don't know.
But Berkeley Rep made it all very relevant a few years back with its powerful staging of Mother Courage (Halliburton, anyone?). So the fault must lie, in part, in John Doyle's new production of Chalk Circle which opened last Wednesday at ACT.
Yes the play itself is not as powerful as Mother Courage and not as devilishly entertaining as Three-Penny Opera. But this spiritless revival -- with a new translation by A.C.T. associate artist Domenique Lozano -- doesn't help.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle features actors playing instruments, a signature of the play's Tony Award-winning director John Doyle (see revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company), with original music from avant-garde composer Nathaniel Stookey (Lemony Snicket's The Composer Is Dead). A narrator/singer played by Manoel Felciano tells the story.
The play begins with a military coup in what is now Georgia, during the country's war with Persia. As rebels invade the palace, the governor and his wife prepare to flee. The Governor's wife, amusingly played by the excellent René Augesen, is so preoccupied with stuffing her luggage with fancy frocks and getting the F out of dodge that she forgets all about her infant son.
Augesen brings a lot of humor to her role as a trashy, spoiled prima donna. Her tacky attire is American glitzy '80s -- or present day Eastern Europe. But other actors are costumed in generic Euro-olden peasant wear -- scarves and tunics and kerchiefs. The corrupt police and soldiers wear bad-guy sunglasses. Some actors wear contemporary American military uniforms, others, Middle Eastern garments. There are black leather jackets and a bowler hat.
In essence, there is little cohesion to the costume choices and not much cohesion to the performances either. It isn't quite clear what Doyle, who directed and designed the production, is going for. And "rag tag" doesn't suffice as a theatrical style. The acting is neither naturalistic nor stylized. If the actors are emulating Brechtian unadorned artifice, the result is often just stilted delivery.
Likewise, stabs at updating the translation detract from simple truth and eloquent wit. For instance, speeches and songs sample Obama and Edwin Starr lyrics -- "War (What is it Good For?)" -- contributing to the jumble of styles. And even though the story is simple, the action feels cluttered.
Grusche, a palace servant, hides the forgotten baby from the soldiers who are searching for him after they behead the wealthy Governor (the baby's father). After the Governor's wife flees, Grusche (Omozé Idehenre) heads for the countryside, protecting the baby from winter weather, greedy country folk and an inhospitable sister-in-law.
There are some amusing scenes, such as when Grusche tries to find shelter with a group of exiled aristocrats by putting on airs and pretending she is one of them. When the snooty women espy her calloused hands, it's as if they've encountered a leper.
Act II takes a palpable shift, developing the character of Azdak, a corrupt judge, who ultimately decides to whom the baby will belong, the mother who abandoned it or the servant who saved and protected it. At long last, the play arrives at its reason why.
"What is here should belong to those who deserve it," concludes the singer, equating maternal legitimacy with Marxist thought. "The children to the motherly so they may thrive; the wagons to the good drivers so they are well driven; and the valley to those who water it so it may bear fruit."
At its close, the cluttered goings on are distilled into something refreshingly unadorned and neo-classical. It's no compliment to the production that the telling works better than the showing. Too much of this "re-imagined" production proves that more is less.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle runs through March 14, 2010 at The American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), located at 415 Geary Street in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit act-sf.org.