Bertolt Brecht's 1945 adaptation of the Chinese play The Chalk Circle, written in 1300, speaks more directly to today's culture in America than do most modern political plays. And in the hands of highly imaginative director Kate Whoriskey and an excellent cast at South Coast Repertory, The Caucasian Chalk Circle stands out as one of the most magical, unforgettable theatrical experiences this year. For two-and-a-half hours, sights, sounds, ideas, and honest emotions flood from the stage, creating an atmosphere for audiences to be entertained, uplifted, and transformed.
SCR has chosen the English translation of the work by W.H. Auden, James Stern, and Tania Stern, although SCR has removed the prologue, which serves as a framing device. Instead the story opens as the narrating Singer (Daniel Breaker) sets the scene. It's "once upon a time" in the Caucasus Mountains near the country known as Georgia. The Governor and his wife Natella (Richard Doyle and Nina Hellman) have a newborn son named Michael. During a bloody coup, the Governor is killed and Natella flees the country, so self-absorbed she leaves the infant behind. Risking her own life, a kitchen maid named Grusha (Katrina Lenk) takes the baby on a long and dangerous journey to safety. Grusha's sacrifice means she can't wait for the return of her fiancé, Simon (Alex Mendoza), a soldier fighting in the war. The second act centers on Azdak (Frank Wood), a drunkard who, by unusual means, has become a judge and must decide several cases, including whether Natella or Grusha is Michael's biological mother.
From start to finish, the production is filled with excitement. Walt Spangler has designed a round rotating stage, with a core that turns in the opposite direction from the outer section. Set pieces, from a tinfoil-covered church to a rustic mountain home, are briskly wheeled on and off. The more than 20 performers, many playing multiple roles, sing, dance, and participate in various bits of physical comedy. Though the entire cast is wonderful, Lenk and Wood give outstanding performances. As Grusha, Lenk serves as the story's anchor. She provides a sense of determination and love that is both heartening and heartbreaking. Wood gives a seemingly effortless performance. He is perfect as a stumbling bum whose judgments are simultaneously insane and genius. The production delivers several laughs, a few tears, and an endless supply of amazement.
"The Caucasian Chalk Circle," presented by and at South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tue. 7:30 p.m., Wed.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Sep. 10-Oct. 9. $28-58. (714) 708-5555.