Review: 'Caucasian Chalk Circle' jabs at injustice

This theater publicity image released by The Publicity Office shows Christopher Lloyd, left, and Elizabeth A. Davis in a scene from Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”, currently performing off-Broadway at Classic Stage Company in New York. (AP Photo/The Publicity Office; Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK (AP) — The oblivious entitlement of the elite is a cherished target for caricature. German dramatist Bertolt Brecht harpooned the arrogance of the privileged class ("well-born stinkers") in "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," his 1944 absurdist tale of exile, social inequality and misguided justice.

A well-sung, well-acted and generally entertaining production opened Thursday night at Classic Stage Company, starring Christopher Lloyd as a roguish judge and featuring a strong comedic presence by Mary Testa. The allegoric musical includes folk-tinged original music by Tony Award-winner Duncan Sheik ("Spring Awakening"), with thoughtful lyrics by W. H. Auden.

Brecht, whose classic works include "The Threepenny Opera," co-written with Kurt Weil, and "Mother Courage and Her Children," wrote the play while in exile himself in America. He combined contemporaneous political issues with elements from a Chinese parable and the story of the judgment of Solomon, in which two women claim the same child.

CSC artistic director Brian Kulick has colorfully staged his slightly uneven but energetic interpretation of the play-within-a-play. A troupe of exiles recites and dramatizes the story, comically interrupted by the occasional electrical blackout. Their ever-present suitcases serve as props, furniture and even stepping-stones, a whimsical yet symbolic touch that provides a continuous reminder of displacement and uncertainty.

A young peasant maid called Grusha, (a lovely, intense portrayal, richly sung by Elizabeth A. Davis), rescues the forgotten infant of her selfish ruling-class employer, Natella (Testa, delightfully haughty and petulant), during a murderous civil war. Adding to the general air of disorder and broken hopes, a statue that resembles Lenin is toppled and remains crumbled in the background for most of the play.

Grusha then undergoes a perilous journey to evade vicious soldiers, becoming a loving mother during a few difficult, impoverished years in exile. When Natella demands the child back for the wealth he's to inherit, the women must battle for him in court.

Five players credibly perform multiple roles, some comedic and some serious. Tom Riis Farrell brings a robustly clownish enthusiasm to his characters, at one point amiably urging the audience to join in a couple of activities to "help make Bertolt Brecht proud."

Lloyd provides effective narration and gravitas as The Singer in the first act, then turns irascible and loud throughout Act 2 as Azdak, the vulgar, ranting, drunken judge. Lloyd is perfectly cast as this seeming madman, who risks his life to make judgments that help the poor. Mugging incessantly and stalking around in grimy rags, Lloyd broadly enacts Azdak's eloquent craziness in a series of satirical courtroom scenes.

Alex Hurt is charmingly sincere as Grusha's soldier-suitor, Simon, especially in their sweetly awkward courtship scenes. Jason Babinsky holds his own as a lawyer who gamely tries to outwit the unpredictable judge. Deb Radloff rounds out the cast in various roles that include a bitchy sister-in-law and a sexy peasant temptress.

Brecht's socialist message was that productivity of the workers should trump wealth and privilege, and resources should be shared by those who will do the most with them. In the finale, the chorus broodily sings, "Let all things go to those/Whose abilities may suit/The valley to the waterers/That it shall bear fruit."