Questions of motherhood, and class, in 'Chalk Circle'

"The Caucasian Chalk Circle" 

Long before legal and ethical complications surrounding surrogacy and adoption, not to mention the thorny class implications of paid child care, entered the picture, playwright Bertolt Brecht took a wide-lens shot of the mommy wars in 1944's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle." The story of Grusha, the good-hearted and spunky servant girl who rescues the infant son of a deposed despotic governor and his greedy wife when the latter flees an insurrection, contains multiple resonances for our own age of class unrest and shifting definitions of parenthood.

But director Ed Rutherford's staging for Promethean Theatre Ensemble suffers from a lack of specificity. One can certainly argue that Rutherford's decision to excise the opening scene, in which squabbling collectivist farmers in the post-World War II Caucasus hear Grusha's story as a cautionary allegory, allows for greater contextual breathing room. But the neither-here-nor-there "limbo that is the last refuge found by all that flee human injustice, cruelty and class warfare in every era," as Rutherford's director's note describes this production's world, combined with an ensemble that never sings from the same stylistic songbook, sucks some of the joy out of what is, at heart, a raucous folk tale.

This is particularly true in the second act with the introduction of Teddy Lance's Azdak, the rascally rabbit thief who assumes leadership of the post-revolutionary kangaroo court charged with deciding whether or not Grusha can keep the child. The cases taken up by Azdak before the Solomon-esque resolution to Grusha's conundrum, instead of comically heightening the class contradictions, instead feel like inchoate narrative throat clearing.

Fortunately, Rutherford has two ace performers on hand who elevate the show every step of the way. Sara Gorsky's Grusha shines with forthright gumption and palpable vulnerability, and her endearingly self-conscious cabaret-style delivery of a song in the first act makes one wish Rutherford had hewed a bit more closely to that intriguing aesthetic choice throughout. Cary Davenport's Lead Singer also delivers composer Matt Kahler's folk-inspired numbers with clarity and sardonic elan.

Through Feb. 9 at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.; $20 at 800-838-3006 or


An intriguing experiment in cross-breeding historical chamber drama and Charles Ludlam's Theatre of the Ridiculous that ultimately falls flat, playwright Sean Graney's "Sugarward," in its world premiere at The Side Project, also tackles revolution and class discontent. Graney draws upon the true story of Col. Daniel Parke, a social-climbing governor of the colonial British Leeward Islands in the Caribbean (a key site for the "triangular trade" during the slavery era) who met his end through a combination of alienating reform efforts that just happened to enrich the interests of Queen Anne and his appetites for other men's wives.

Through a series of scenes set four years apart, John Henry Roberts' Parke confronts his dissolution and downfall, hastened by the efforts of three men: a manservant, Thomas Kirby; a former governor, Christopher Codrington; and Edward Chester, a planter cuckolded by Parke.

The conceit is that all of Parke's nemeses are played by the same actor, Joel Ewing, who does yeoman's work in pulling off the quick changes, a la Ludlam's "The Mystery of Irma Vep." But the script itself feels, paradoxically, overly expositional and yet undercooked. If I hadn't read the dramaturgical notes contained in my press kit, I'm not sure I would have been able to follow all the narrative threads that Graney loosely knots together.

There are certainly some striking parallels to be found with Parke's story; the reformer with less-than-pure motives and personal peccadilloes remains a constant type across the ideological spectrum. But the airless nature of Graney's script, which director Geoff Button can't enliven despite some fine work by both actors, means that the cerebral buzz of "Sugarward" is short-lived.

Through Feb. 10, The Side Project, 1439 W. Jarvis St.; $20 at 773-340-0140 or

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