This is a pretty standard tale of good vs. not-so-good, and in this production it is the supporting cast who deserves the praise. In “Ancient Grusinia” the times they are a-changin’. The working class is rising up and toppling dukes and governors right and left. And those that are left behind are in a pickle.
The Governor’s wife (the fabulous Mary Testa) is so flustered trying to choose which dresses to leave and which to take that she flies the coop without her baby. No matter, because the kind hearted Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis), a servant in the house, will take the child with her in moment of weakness and mercy. The Governor’s heir cannot be blamed or abandoned. The rest of the tale roles out like the Yellow Brick Road. Grusha will flee from the new militia who want the baby dead. She will be challenged by nature and circumstance and eventually marry her brother’s neighbor Yussup (Jason Babinsky) in order to secure a roof and safety. But the past will not leave her alone, and eventually she is found.
The entire second act is devoted to the region’s court, now being run by a former beggar Azdak (Christopher Lloyd) who hands out justice that is slanted in favor of the poor and the perplexed. Azdak’s judgeship was handed to him by the military who thought it would add to the mischief if the law were turned on its head. When the Governor’s wife appears to plead for the return of the child she forgot three years earlier, it is Azdak who will determine the boy’s fate. Who is the true mother? The one who gave birth, or the one who gave life?
Lloyd and David are sincere in their efforts to bring this story to life, and there are some crystal moments where they succeed. There is a fierceness to Davis that makes Grusha formidable. As well, there is a cleverness to everything that Lloyd does as Azdak that he reveals one drop at a time. However, on the whole their performances lack certitude and depth.
The people you want to keep your eyes on are Mary Testa, Tom Riis Farrell, Jason Babinsky, Deb Radloff, and Alex Hurt. These folks do it all. They are a country, a village, a hamlet in the mountains. Farrell is a chameleon who flows from character to character without a hitch. His Corporal is as threatening as his peasant is comforting. Babinsky is marvelous as well, bringing each of his five characters to life with precision and vibrancy. Testa is flawless Deb Radloff, although she has the least time onstage, packs each moment so richly that the she seems to be everywhere at once. As the Grusha’s romantic interest Hurt does not quite measure up to the job, but in every other role he succeeds quite well.
This is a beautifully directed production, and the music seems like it has always been right there just waiting to be called into service. On a personal note I did pity the folks seated on the side who spent most of the evening looking at the actors’ profiles or their butts – when will directors who have a three quarter stage start using it??? In spite of that, these characters come together into a tapestry that wraps around you. These are not foreign people or ideas. They are us.
"Intelligent if uneven production."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"'The Caucasian Chalk Circle' is devilishly hard to pull off. It’s the Venus’ flytrap of plays, luring in ambitious troupes only to eat them alive. Director Brian Kulick and his muddled revival are just the latest victims."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Dutiful and dull."
David Cote for Time Out New York
"The production frequently flounders despite its energetic staging."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"It’s this kind of sweet stuff that gives cynicism a good name."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...