Caucasian Chalk Circle Succeeds with High-Energy Production


Courtesy of John Seyfried

A cluster of actors gather around College senior Julia Melfi in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The Oberlin Theater department premiered the famous play by German playwright Bertolt Brecht Thursday night.

Claire Murchison

Five years ago, I sat in a circle with 12 other aspiring actors and read “Flight to the Northern Mountains,” a scene excerpted from German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s renowned play The Caucasian Chalk Circle. We had specially selected this piece for its action and suspense, and our reading was to be imbued with these themes in mind. The moments before the reading were filled with restless anticipation. Ultimately, we felt we had butchered the scene. In an attempt to preserve what little remaining confidence we had in our acting abilities, we chalked our failure up to Brecht’s unusual modernist writing style and vowed to never speak of Brecht again.

I had kept my word up until five days ago, when I sat in the audience of Oberlin College Theater’s performance of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. I had never experienced so much shame before that night; the show was incredible. Directed by Oberlin professor Heather Anderson Boll, an actress in her own right, Brecht’s play came to life beautifully. Any reader of Brecht can enjoy his dialogue: It is witty and clever, sharp and biting, while simultaneously sweet and tender. Any reader also knows how tedious his script is and how tiresome it can be without adequate animation. Boll and the students behind this ingenious creation gave a performance that demanded the audience’s attention.

Brecht wrote Chalk Circle in 1944 while living in the United States. Since its debut, Chalk Circle has been hailed as Brecht’s masterpiece and is also one of the most popular German plays of all time. The didactic story follows the journey of a peasant girl who rescues the baby of powerful rulers. As a parable, the story is highly reminiscent of folktales such as “The Boy who Cried Wolf ” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Archetypes such as the corrupt ruler, the damsel in distress, the honest peasant and many others spill out onto the stage.

Brecht introduced and intended the play to serve as epic theater. He once stated that the “play should not cause the spectator to identify emotionally with the characters or action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational selfreflection and a critical view of the action on the stage.” The Theater department seemed to have taken this piece of advice to heart. Every aspect of the play was deconstructed and transparent for the audience to see. The stage was open so that no curtains obscured props or offstage actors from view, costumes were minimal and gender roles were blurred. This production also made it hard for viewers to fall in love with characters or be swept away by a beautiful set. The show’s aesthetic was stark and unflinchingly clear. Brecht wanted his story to be heard and understood. On the stage of Hall Auditorium, that is all the audience received.

The 13-person cast was unusually and incredibly strong, across the board. Oftentimes productions consist of a few strong actors, many mediocre actors and a few stragglers. This cast contained no weak links. Each actor tried their hand at playing multiple characters as well, which added a driving force to the plot and brought a unique type of energy to the stage. This pulsating, ever-present energy kept audience members on the edge of their seats, saturated every aspect of the play and served as the solid foundation the actors used to enhance their performances.

The play seemed to be driven by some unknown force. The actors played up their strengths in addition to Brecht’s dialogue and stage directions to create a perfect storm. They used their diaphragms to drive out lines, called upon natural instincts for comedic timing and made their faces expressive and readable for the audience. Every single aspect of this performance was strong and committed. Watching it was incredibly satisfying, similar to the feeling one gets after finally completing a tough puzzle. Oberlin College Theater’s performance of Chalk Circle will not be easily forgotten, and I anticipate the rise of Brecht at Oberlin in the near future.