The promise of first impressions is fulfilled many times over with UC Irvine's magnificently conceived and marvelously executed production of "The Caucasian Chalk Circle." As Bertolt Brecht's so-called epic parable unfolds on the welcoming thrust stage of the Fine Arts Concert Hall, the art of theater is renewed as a living idea filled with relevance and significance and--not least--with pleasure.
It would be difficult for any play, no matter how vigorous or riveting, to compete with the high drama of the Persian Gulf War. Yet "Caucasian Chalk Circle," based on an ancient Chinese legend and written during World War II from Brecht's Santa Monica "exile in paradise," seems as germane a commentary as anything being broadcast these days.
The late German playwright, choosing "the temptation of goodness" as his ironic theme, describes a civil war and tells the story of Grusha, an innocent servant girl, who saves an infant abandoned by his mother, the Governor's witchy wife, during her panicked flight from the royal palace.
Pursued through the war-torn countryside by the Iron Shirts, Grusha endures all sorts of hardships to protect the child whom she comes to love as her own. When she finally is captured after her sweetheart's departure for the battle front, niggardly help from her brother and a forced marriage to a nasty peasant, she faces the ultimate test of motherhood in court, where the roguish judge Azdak presides.
Azdak, a paradoxical figure dominating the second act, is elevated by the Iron Shirts to magistrate from his lowly post of village recorder. He metes out justice while guzzling drunkenly from his wine bottle. With one hand pounding an oversize gavel and the other held out for bribes--"You want justice, but do you want to pay for it?"--he also dispenses a wily, vernacular wisdom that sounds suspiciously like Brecht's own.
As engrossing as the story is, "Chalk Circle" needs the right performance style to succeed. This is provided not only by Eli Simon's highly theatrical staging, with its utilization of a very physical amalgam of realistic and schematized acting, but also by the aptly imaginative use of props both to eliminate the usual guise of illusion and to heighten the atmosphere of make-believe.
The production achieves an open theatrical form through the effective support of Paul Hodgins' original score in live performance. The vivid masks and Sandra Sykora's costumes are, moreover, all that one could ask for. Jane Spigarelli gives a sterling performance as Grusha. Jon Sidoli plays Azdak with the appropriate vulgarity. Dudley Knight provides a steady presence as the Narrator. Among the rest of the large cast, Lynn Watson is notable as the Governor's wife and Phil Tabor as the Fat Prince.
What: "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" by Bertolt Brecht.
When: Thursday, Jan. 24, to Saturday, Jan. 26, at 8 p.m.
Where: UC Irvine Fine Arts Concert Hall.
Whereabouts: On the UCI campus near Bridge and Mesa roads.
Wherewithal: $10 to $14.
Where to Call: (714) 856-6616.