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Photo: Daniel Schwartz
Photo: Daniel Schwartz

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Small but Mighty

“Small but mighty” should be the thought that comes to mind after seeing the most recent production by the Constellation Theatre Company. Bertolt Brecht’s epic tale The Caucasian Chalk Circle dazzles in the hands of director Allison Arkell Stockman. She leads a small ensemble of 14 to victory as they confidently and passionately unveil the grand story of adventure, justice, power and love.

The Constellation Theatre Company transformed the black-box theatre into a 360 degrees, 88-seat configuration, which elicits an immersive experience where the partition separating drama and reality is lifted.

The circular design heightens the play’s mysteriousness, engrossing audience during the epic tale. Throughout the two and a half hour show, thespians enter and exit from every aperture, making it nearly impossible to declare one point of the stage as the main stage. Constant head turning, searching for the one speaking, along with unexpected audience participation maintains a high alertness for viewers within this insulated rousing environment.

 

A whirlwind of talent engulfs both the 14-person cast, who portray more than sixty characters between them, and the three-person band performing rock-inspired music for the period piece.

As the lights expose the all black stage, a multidimensional, multi-period story begins to unfold. Two farmer unions debate who should control the land abandoned by the Nazis after WWII, and in order to resolve the conflict, a play was produced and performed.

Carrying the bulk of the narrative initially is a character described as The Singer, played by Matthew Schleigh, who is also one of the three band members. Schleigh lightheartedly introduces the parable that would reveal the unexpected steps it precedes. His performance is exactly what one would hope for in a renaissance piece. He charms and flirts with the audience while singing modern folk songs to appeal to those present. His narration leaves more to be desired as he shifts gears altogether and assumes the role of the Judge in the latter half of the production.

Within another vein of the multi-dimensional story line, a war is taking place after a coup leads to the murder of the Governor played by Keith E. Irby. The murder takes place after the governor’s son and heir is born. In a panic, the mother of the child leaves her home and abandons her new born baby. Grusha, a handmaiden, played by Yesenia Iglesias, saves the baby from certain death.

Grusha’s journey in search of asylum is preempted by her own love story with the soldier Simon, played by Drew Kopas. The innocent love between characters Grusha and Simon is brought into sharp focus and is most evident as the couple sings their farewell song before Simon leaves to fight in a war against Iran.

At the onset, Iglesias’ vocal stylings are delicate, but eventually they ricochet throughout the intimate space. Her talents are perfectly supported by a diverse and powerful ensemble whose harmonies could be bottled and sold at an extremely high price. All musical components are exquisite.

The only unpleasant, albeit intentionally, element within the entire show is Sergeant, played by Scott Ward Abernethy. At first, Sergeant comes across as a comical, loving character, until his true intentions surface and his whole presence transforms. The demented performance could cause one to wince at his very sight. This is mostly due to the crude language, sexual gestures and unwarranted sexual advances, which echo the atrocities responsible for today’s #MeToo movement.

One thing the Constellation Theatre Company has certainly mastered is transformative theater. Each time I visit the intimate space, I’m lost in a new world, but I’m always guided by an ensemble that embodies its characters and navigates the set. Their knowledge of the space paired with the simple and appropriate choreography by Tony Thomas II makes this a spectacular hit.

The use of space was pleasant, as they create bridges out of humans and illustrate wind with dance. The play wows, making you want to sit in the theater for hours in reflection of the time spent in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia.

The Causasian Chalk Circle is playing now through May 13 at the Constellation Theatre Company. Ticket prices are $25-$45. There is no late seating.

Consteallation Theatre Company: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; 202-204-7741; www.constellationtheatre.org

Photo: Daniel Schwartz
Photo: Daniel Schwartz

The Skin of our Teeth: quirky play a story for the times

With a whirlwind of huge time jumps, religious allegory and actor-audience interaction, The Skin of Our Teeth is one of those plays that keep you thinking long after the curtain has closed and everyone has gone home. And while I still find it hard to put into words what the story means on a personal level, I am certain that this is a play with a message that could not be better suited for the times. Running at Constellation Theatre until February 11, The Skin of Our Teeth was written by Thornton Wilder and has been directed by Helen Hayes award winner Mary Hall Surface for this production.

The play follows the story of the Antrobus family—husband George (Steven Carpenter), wife Maggie (Lolita Marie), children Henry (Dallas Tolentino) and Gladys (Malinda Kathleen Reese) and their maid Sabina (the fantastic Tonya Beckman)—in good times and bad and across vast time shifts. And I mean vast—the scenes range from the beginning of an Ice Age, to the Atlantic City boardwalk to a post-apocalyptic bomb shelter.

How can these times all be connected? Well the Antrobus’s are very old… George and Maggie have been married for 5,000 years to be exact. But they are simply your average family living in a New Jersey suburb, managing to survive all these Earth-altering events by… wait for it… the skin of their teeth.

And despite an unusual storyline and being written by Wilder almost 80 years ago, certain elements of the story may as well have been written for our modern era. Quotes from Maggie could be said by today’s feminists: “I have a letter…and in the letter is written all the things that a woman knows. It’s never been told to any man and it’s never been told to any woman, and if it finds its destination, a new time will come. We’re not what books and plays say we are. We’re not what advertisements say we are.”

Other’s talk about how in times of hardship, we must go on no matter what: “Do I have to explain to you what everybody else already knows – everybody who keeps a home going? Do I have to say what nobody should ever have to say, because they can read it in each other’s eyes? Now listen to me: I could live for seventy years in a cellar making soup out of grass and bark, without ever doubting that this world has work to do and will do it?”

While somewhat of a challenge to describe on paper, The Skin of Our Teeth adds up in person and is truly a funny, moving story that proves just how much the human spirit can endure. Constellation Theatre’s Source Theatre proved a great stage to host the show as its semi-circular stage allowed for wonderfully unique set designs and an intimate setting let the audience experience the full impact of emotions flowing across the stage. The unique characters and wildly imaginative storyline will truly stay with you long after the play is over, and as Sabina says to the audience at the end, the show doesn’t end with the curtain call; we have a long way to go and the end hasn’t been written yet.

Catch The Skin of Our Teeth at the Constellation Theatre Company’s Source Theatre, running through February 11, 2018. Learn more here.

Constellation Theatre Company’s Source Theatre: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; 202-204-7741; www.constellationtheatre.org