Ensconced in the center of the Zellerbach Playhouse is a vertiginous stage, stained in aquamarine, licorice red and pale salmon. Floating around the arena are knee-high tables, an assortment of chairs and a monumental amount of tapestries, ranging from the typical pillow sham to the ones draped across a college student’s window. To the side is a nook resembling a backyard concert. It’s an array of set dressing which magnetizes in service of the story. At the convergence of the UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, or TDPS, program’s reimagining of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” is an inventive and daring perspective on neo-colonialist impositions and the caustic relations within class divides.
The prologue opens on an uprooted village under the supervision of an authority seemingly like NATO. The citizens band together to stage a play, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” for the military personnel. Within this frame, a revolt brews against the nobility of the town, that is similar to the one in the prologue. When the powder keg finally bursts, the governor’s son is forgotten and abandoned in favor of posh commodities belonging to the court. A local village girl claims the boy as her own, and as she seeks refuge away from her war-torn country, she must fight against the powers that be: religion, greed and law.
The ambition of Brecht’s style, epic theatre, is to separate the stage from the audience — making participants aware they are watching a play indicative of life outside the theater.
TDPS uses its own bag of tricks to disrupt the theater space. With only 19 actors in its company and more than 50 characters in need of a voice and body, an exquisite use of costuming grants performers liberty to plunge into a vivacious spectrum of personalities. Each outfit is distinct enough to imprint characters through cloth alone. Where one moment an actor surfaces as the oppressive arm of the aristocracy, clad in midnight black, a few minutes later they reappear in farmer’s garb with all new traits, speech patterns and gait. The play itself is buoyed by the versatility of the performers.
The production utilizes in-the-round staging, which is fun to watch as characters appear from any of the five available entrance points. But the orchestrated chaos is only sustainable for so long. As abrupt shifts continuously disorient the audience, the style becomes a hindrance at times. Still, the blocking of actors is impressive as they maneuver in a way that makes plot devices apparent to all audience members circling the stage. There are times where more than 10 actors glide across the stage like ballet dancers. While it becomes difficult to keep track of the central action, “Chalk Circle” alleviates this pressure by having characters grouped in pairs — both playing into a dynamic that renders them inseparable.
Another facet is the use of a puppet to embody the central character of the governor’s son and the fabulous puppeteering by Diana Alvarado. The relationship between a parent’s control over their child’s autonomy is provoking; the mute and lifeless doll abstracts the concept of ownership better than if a real actor were used.
The band sits off to the side of the stage, its purpose being to expound the upcoming scene’s events and significant beats. It acts as a transitional device between temporal and spatial periods of “Chalk Circle” by way of guitar and percussion. The singing by the cast, for the most part, is emotional to the point where struggles of the characters on stage are brought to life through their offstage representatives. On the downside, the instrumentation tends to be rather dry in order to allow for vocals to be emphasized. A thumping drumline is usually the center of a song as only some acoustics coalesce around it. In total, all the polarizing effects of the play, although weaker when each one is isolated, do consolidate to make an energetic and audacious indictment in classic Brecht fashion.