Patrick Loos as Azdak, the judge and Sienna Hassett as Grusha, the adoptive mother appear in “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” through Oct. 24 at the Bonstelle Theatre on the Wayne State University campus. For more information call (313) 577-2960 go to www.bonstelle.com.
By Sue Suchyta
The Bonstelle Theatre, Wayne State University’s undergraduate theater company, opens its 60th season with Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” Five talented Dearborn actors and two Wyandotte thespians are featured in the versatile company.
Dearborn actress and WSU senior Kerianne Fergurson plays Natella, the arrogant wife of a wealthy noble and a contested child’s biological mother.
Cal Schwartz of Dearborn, also a senior, is Arkadi, the singer, who serves as the show’s narrator.
Other featured local company members include Dearborn residents Jacqui Michnuk, Annabelle Young and William Turbett, as well as Billy Dean and Yasmeen Mikhail of Wyandotte.
Brecht’s play was written in the United States in 1944. It bypassed Broadway initially, was translated from its original German and first produced in the United States at the collegiate level in 1948.
A socialistic, King Solomon morality story, the script subjected Brecht to scrutiny during the post-World War II anti-communist era by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy witch-hunting period.
Mark Nichols’ score, written in 2004, has infused the production with vitality many times since then. While it does not create a musical out of the classic fable, it brings another layer of emotion to the retelling of the classic morality tale in which two mothers claim the same child.
In Brecht’s version of the story, the true nurturer, not necessarily the biological mother is willing to relinquish custody of the child to protect its ultimate well-being.
When director Jesse Merz, head of WSU’s BFA in acting program paired Nichols’ music with Brecht’s script, the show ran more than four hours. It has since been reduced to around three hours with a cast of 35 actors.
The company performs on a stage open to the bare walls, reminding theater patrons that they are indeed watching a play, as opposed to letting them escape into the story when the house lights dim. While Brecht was unconventional in his era, his messages are as relevant today as they were during similar worldwide political unrest 60 years ago.
Originally set in Russia at the end of World War II, it features two groups of people – goat herders and fruit growers – competing for the same agricultural area. The local authorities must decide how the land can best be used for the good of all the people. It provides the company with a chance to perform many roles in this play within a play.
The locals agree to entertain the arbiters, and as a result the Chalk Circle story is performed.
Brecht’s version profiles two women, and poses the question of who is truly a child’s mother: The biological mother or the adoptive, protective, nurturer, regardless of blood ties.
The fable examines choosing the good of the community over the merit earned by an individual. This message was viewed with suspicion in the forties when Communism was seen as a serious threat to the United States.
Today’s economic woes once again pit the haves versus have-nots, especially in the area of education and health care. If a government is to provide equal access to basic needs and opportunities to all its residents someone must pay the bill. The free market economic incentives which reward based on merits raise many volatile topics that challenge the best way to strike a balance between individual rewards versus the collective good of the community.
When director Merz paired Nichols’ score with Brecht’s script, the original result exceeded four hours. As cuts were made, much of the music was removed from beginning scenes. The first 20 minutes of Act I suffer the most. The production finally springs to life when the cast brings music to the forefront.
However, once audiences get beyond the show’s slow start, the energy of the company and the infusion of energy from the music stir the audience. The story then began to pick up the pace and acquire a life of its own.
Sienna Hassett of Grosse Pointe Park is a standout as Grusha, the servant and self-appointed adoptive mother who protects the child at great personal risk during a time of political and military unrest.
Kerrianne Furgerson of Dearborn makes the most of her part as the pampered and indulged nobleman’s wife.
Patrick Loos of Highland as Azdak, the judge, captivates the audience and is very comfortable in his role; he reminds one of a self-deprecating Teveye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The costumes are a colorful collision of cultures and regions, and lend a symbolic rural European ethnicity to the production, as well as visual variety against the deliberate post-war socialist austerity of the set. One couldn’t help but feel that the uniformed soldiers seem to have wandered out of a production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The company is involved in almost every scene, serving as the community consciousness or “Greek chorus,” and providing a musical voice, sound effects, a long list of individual characters and the collective crowd.
“The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” which opened Friday, runs at the Bonstelle Theatre, 3434 Woodward, through Oct. 24. Friday and Saturday shows are at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. Sunday matinees.
Ticket are $15, with a $3 discount for senior citizens and Wayne State University faculty, staff and alumni association members. Group discounts are also available. For more information, call the box office at (313) 577-2960 or go to www.bonstelle.com.
ILLUSTRATED MINISTRY PRESENTS ‘MY SECRET PAIN’
Illustrated Ministries will present “My Secret Pain” at 6 p.m. Oct. 22 in the Upper Room at 23821 Grand River in Detroit. The Christian drama deals with abuse issues. For more information, call (734) 968-5815 or visit the Facebook page for Illustrated Ministry. Call by Monday for dinner theater reservations.
WSU STUDIO THEATRE PRESENTS ‘GETTING OUT’
While Wayne State’s Studio Theatre in the lower level of the Hilberry is being renovated its shows will be presented at the Maggie Allesee Studio in Old Main, 480 W. Hancock, Suite 3317 on the Wayne State campus in Detroit.
The first studio show of the season, “Getting Out,” will be performed at 8 p.m. Oct. 21 to 23 and Oct. 28 to 30 in their temporary location. For more information, call the box office, at (313) 577-2972, or go to www.wsustudio.com.
HILBERRY OPENS ‘OF MICE AND MEN’
The graduate company will open Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” Oct. 22 in the Hilberry Theatre. For more information, call (313) 577-2972 or go to www.hilberry.com.