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THEATER REVIEW : 'Circle' at Times Out of Its Element at Amphitheater


Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" sounds like an ideal production for the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. The first half lives up to expectations; it's perfect for the company's alfresco stage. But the second half is a different story, in more ways than one.

The play begins in a rural area where two groups of villagers are disputing rights to a valley and also recalling wartime incidents in the surrounding hills. From our seats, we see a real valley and real hills. And just as many of the villagers carry blankets for warmth, many audience members are using blankets for seat padding.

The villagers quickly settle their differences and ask a Storyteller (Philip Littell) to mark the occasion. He chooses the saga of Grusha (Melora Marshall), a palace maid who saves the governor's abandoned baby from marauding revolutionaries and flees with the infant across the countryside.

Her perilous adventures play as if they were written for the Botanicum's vast amphitheater. Pursued by a squad of Iron Shirts, she encounters deep forests, glaciers and streams (swaths of blue fabric are used here), and most memorably a rotting bridge that she escapes across in the nick of time. At the Botanicum, it's a real bridge that looks none too healthy, and it crosses a real stream (well, OK, a brook) that passes under the stage.

Marshall is the very model of young pluck. She's also playing Stella in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Julia in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" in the same summer repertory--certainly one of L.A.'s more impressive demonstrations of repertory acting.

Grusha successfully thwarts Thad Geer's swinish Corporal. But she is forced to keep the baby longer than she had imagined, and she grows attached to him. Unable to find her fiance (Milan Dragicevich), she finally marries an almost-dead peasant (John Farrell). His scheming mother (Earnestine Phillips) hosts a wedding/funeral supper that provides high comic relief after all the derring-do.

Ellen Geer's staging remains lively throughout the long first half, propelled by Littell's exotically declamatory narration. But the momentum slows after intermission. Grusha is temporarily ignored, while Brecht takes up the story of Azdak, a rascal who's drafted into becoming a judge.

In indoor productions, Azdak's scenes are often the highlight of the show. But they take place on a narrower canvas, one less suited for this stage. And they occur just as the length of the evening and the hardness of the primitive audience seating--constructed from railroad-tie cribbing--are beginning to take their toll. Arthur Burghardt's Azdak is more pompous than rascally, and by the time the play ends--three hours and 20 minutes after it began--we begin to wish we had left at intermission.

Of course then we wouldn't see what happens to Grusha. The final scene is topical in a way that Brecht surely never imagined: The child's birth mother and Grusha do battle for the kid (Orin Geer) within the fabled "chalk circle," just as Baby Jessica's sets of parents recently battled for her in court. Sympathies aren't as divided here, however; they're entirely with Grusha, not the selfish governor's widow (Mary Wickliffe).

Glen Mehrbach has composed a tantalizing Orientalized score, played from the balcony above the stage, and Bernie White's costumes lampoon some of the bad guys without being too obvious about it.

* "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3:30 p.m. Ends Sept. 12. $12. (310) 455-3723. Running Time: 3 hours, 20 minutes.

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