05/30/2013 06:26 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

First Nighter: Bertolt Brecht, Brian Kulick Collaborate on "The Caucasian Chalk Circle"

For some reason, directors like to take liberties with Bertolt Brecht. Perhaps because the German playwright placed so many of his plays in exotic places of his imagination--as a safe(r) way to take oblique pokes at very real government(s)--the men and women producing him feel free to do their own kind of tinkering.
Brian Kulick is certainly having his merry way with The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht's 1944 allegory taken from a Chinese fable. The sprawling opus is set in Russia--in, to be precise, a place the playwright calls Grusinia but was known to mean Georgia. As a matter of theatrical fact, Kulick sticks to the locale but hardly entirely.
The Classic Stage Company program designation reads "Ancient Grusinia but also perhaps the fall of the Russian Empire when the Hammer and Sickle were replaced by the Coca-Cola Bottle." In other words, Kulick--being no more subtle than the infuriated Brecht cared to be--has decided to lodge the play in a period later than Brecht was picturing. Perhaps he's thinking that were the playwright penning his manuscript now, that's what he might have done.
Furthermore, although both Brecht and Kulick begin The Caucasian Chalk Circle with a prologue, Brecht's involves an agricultural dispute, whereas Kulick's introduces a band of Russian players--speaking Russian--arriving with worn suitcases they put down in order to start presenting the play--in English.
With his version translated by James and Tania Stern, Kulick probably intends what Brecht always intended: Audiences would recognize how relevant the text is to oppression in their own time.
Well, audiences undoubtedly would get the point without the directorial fiddling, but what the hey! Why not? Why not, when the players playing the players are led by Christopher Lloyd as the narrating Singer and include (six of the seven doubling, tripling, et cetera) the never-less-than-terrific Mary Testa as well as right smart themselves Elizabeth A. Davis, Tom Riis Farrell, Jason Babinsky, Deb Radloff and Alex Hurt (William Hurt's son but soon likely to have his dad identified as Alex Hurt's father)?
Why not when Brecht's lyrics--which have never had an official composer attached to them--are here joined to Duncan Sheik's original and plangent melodies? Why not, when they're delivered by the above troupe of strong warblers? Oh, by the way, the lyrics are the ones translated by W. H. Auden, whom Brecht held in high regard. In such high regard, he asked Auden at least once to translate all his lyrics, a literary event that never materialized.
Kulick does keep intact Brecht's spin on the Chinese source. When the Grusinia governor is having his Lenin-like statue pulled ignominiously from its plinth, his bossy wife (Testa having a grand old time) is so concerned with what frocks to pack before fleeing that she leaves her infant son behind.
Her handmaid Grusha (Davis, looking beautifully gaunt) rescues the tot just after pledging herself to lover Simon (Hurt). Realizing she's being pursued by the armed Ironshirts (Farrell, Babinsky, Hurt), she runs to the mountains where she encounters help sometimes and potential harm at others. The worst of her tribulations is agreeing to save herself and the child by marrying dying man Yussup (Babinsky), who has a remarkable recovery when he realizes the internecine war has ended.
Eventually, the governor's wife returns to claim her boy, the resolution of her suit to be announced by judge Azdak (Lloyd). It's this wise judge, maintaining he has no fount of wisdom, who decides to grant custody according to the outcome of a test that Bible readers will quickly recognize as a variation on Solomon's decision in one of his most famous court cases.
To get the treatment in motion and keep it that way, Kulick comes up with any number of surprises as complements to the surprises his adroit cast produce. Possibly the most ingenious are the suitcases. Once they're plunked on stage by the weary but game thespians, they're frequently rearranged to serve various purposes--such as an escape route for Grusha that may remind some observers of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Eliza and infant crossing the ice. The valises are also opened several times so that props can be pulled from them--such as a scattering of potatoes a farm wife (Radloff) gathers.
Kulick's novelties don't always serve him. During the first section of the second half (the opus is done in two acts this outing), Brecht digresses from Grusha's story to explain how the benighted Azdak came to sit on the judge's seat. It's a circuitous tale that has its plodding moments, a digression Brecht might have deemed necessary but which takes too long to unfold. More liberties taken in the trimming might have benefitted.
Because of the segment length, Kulick relies on Lloyd to carry it. Whereas throughout the first half, Lloyd as the Singer (who does less singing that the other six) wears a straggly white wig and looks as pale as the Grim Reaper, in the second half he's covered with some sort of brown-gold make-up. Now he's a bald-headed eccentric, whom Kulick has apparently encouraged to do his wild-eyed Christopher Lloyd thing. It only lands intermittently. Has Lloyd ever played Frankenstein's monster? He definitely proves he could.
Tony Straiges designed the set, on which the eventually beheaded statue stands until it doesn't. Over it he suspends chairs and other detritus, but his main features are faded Social Realist posters celebrating mother Russia's predominance. For the second act. Straiges hauls out--under Justin Townsend's lights--a huge, graffiti-spoiled Coca Cola sign.
The juxtaposition neatly sends the message Brecht and, with his version, Kulick want to send about the questionable effectiveness of revolutions: Too often they become what they sought so strenuously to replace. With all his inventive fiddling, Kulick hasn't lost sight of that dire warning.