“The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s allegorical meditation on law and justice, will be the spring Studio Theatre production at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.
From left, students Walker Humphrey, Ray Alvarado, Dylan Bilka, and Lauren Elias in "The Caucasian Chalk Circle"
“Chalk Circle” weaves the interconnected tales of a land dispute, a boy caught in a custody battle, and a self-appointed judge’s unorthodox effort to establish the child’s maternity. “Brecht uses the ‘splitting the baby’ themes in the Biblical story of Solomon and the ancient Chinese zaju verse play ‘Circle of Chalk,’ but in his telling, it is the baby’s adoptive mother, a servant, who has the boy’s best interests at heart, while the wealthy biological mother is most concerned with protecting her wardrobe of party dresses,” says Joanne Zerdy, director of the show and lecturer in theatre at Penn State Behrend. “Brecht connects this story to the conflict introduced in the show’s prologue, two villages fighting over a worn-torn piece of land in the Caucasus Mountains.”
Written at the end of World War II as Brecht was living in exile in New York, “Chalk Circle” reflects the playwright’s Marxist advocacy of collective good over individual desire. “But this is not a solemn drama,” Zerdy adds. “Comedic characters and engaging music move the story forward.”
Brecht wrote the libretto for “Chalk Circle,” but Penn State Behrend’s production of the show sets his lyrics to music by contemporary Seattle musician Mark Nichols. Nichols’ polyphonic songs emphasize the story-telling role of the show’s chorus. “Unlike in other musicals, where the songs reveal the characters’ inner lives or resolve a problem, these songs help tell the central story,” says music director John Champagne, an associate professor of English at Penn State Behrend and an accomplished theatrical vocalist and accompanist. “Nichols’ attempt to capture the feel of the region’s folk songs results in haunting harmonies and rhythmic variations, all sung with minimal musical accompaniment.” Champagne adds that these pieces “were not easy for the singers to learn, but the songs are alternatively fun and beautiful, and the spoken sections will strike listeners as being something akin to rap.”
Zerdy says that she chose Brecht’s Modernist work for her second production at Penn State Behrend cause of its layered stories and metatheatrical qualities. “‘Chalk Circle’ constantly reminds the audience that they’re watching a theatrical story unfolding in front of them. For instance, each of our student actors portrays several characters. We’re not trying to hide this element of the play; in fact we are working to highlight it.”
“Chalk Circle’s” student cast of many characters is Ray Alvarado of Pittsburgh; Steven Belfiore of Erie; Dylan Bilka of Seven Fields, Pa.; Lauren Elias of Bethel Park, Pa.; Walker Humphrey of Erie; Toni Igbenoba of Odenton, Md.; Adele Johns of New York City; Alice Lyons of Corry; Erica Robertson of Washington, Pa.; Ryan Smith of Erie; and Brandon Thomas of Butler, Pa.
“The Caucasian Chalk Circle” will be performed at 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 29, and Friday, March 30, at 2 and 9 p.m. on Saturday, March 31, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 1. Tickets are $5 for general admission and $3 for students and can be purchased at the Student Activities Desk in the Reed Union Building or by calling 814-898-6242.