Bertolt Brecht wrote “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” in 1944 as an epic piece of agitprop about the evils and absurdities of war and totalitarianism. What was performed in 1962 by the Royal Shakespeare Company with a cast of 30 playing 90 roles has been reduced to a band of seven troupers at the estimable Classic Stage Company under the direction of artistic director Brian Kulick.
The results are mixed, at best.
Christopher Lloyd of “Back to the Future” and “Taxi” fame is the draw here, but his screeching ravings in the first half as The Singer who is supposed to narrate and illuminate the proceedings are often problematically unintelligible. He is more up to the role of the lunatic judge Azdak in Act II, but the whole thing suffers from a manic comic tone that doesn’t allow too many recognizable humans to break through the proceedings. Much seems to be lost in translation.
Mary Testa — brilliant in comic works such as “Xanadu: The Musical” on Broadway — doesn’t do much more than mug her way through her roles here such as the imperious Governor’s Wife. (Lesbian comic and chanteuse Lea DeLaria takes over for Testa on June 11 for a two-week extension of the show.)
This work is always meant to be performed with music and songs, and CSC’s production features ones by Duncan Sheik, the genius behind “Spring Awakening.” But his lugubrious work here slows down an already overlong take on the play and doesn’t enhance the proceedings.
Lacking a big cast, six or so audience members are dragooned into filling out the famous wedding/ funeral scene, but they are given nothing to do but sit on stage. Kulick doesn’t risk having his cast interact with them or draw some improvisation from them, so it is a wasted gesture.
All that said, there are some fine supporting players hard at work embodying a range of characters each, notably Elizabeth A. Davis as Grusha, the maid who looks after the Governor’s Wife’s baby when she leaves him behind while fleeing the rebels. The title scene, set three years later –– in which the judge orders the boy to be placed in a chalk circle and directs the women to each hold one of his hands and try to pull him out of it in order to win him –– is almost perfunctory rather than climactic. Not so much a struggle as a jerk.
A rare miss for CSC.
THE CAUCAUSIAN CHALK CIRCLE | Classic Stage Company | 136 E. 13th St. | Through Jun. 23; Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $60-125 at classicstage.org or 212-352-3101