Everybody loves "Earnest" in Lafayette and the Caucasian Chalk Circle in San Francisco is a hard sell!

Algernon (Christopher Kristant) & Earnest (Ryan O’Donnell) debate in "The Importance of Being Earnest"
The American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco has just opened a very bold and unique production of Bertolt Brecht’s well known play, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”. This play, written in 1944, is somewhat reminiscent of a very famous biblical account of the Judgment of King Soloman. The second play, which opened this past week in Lafayette, is an Oscar Wilde gem that has long been a favorite of mine, “The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People” (the original full title as presented at its opening at the Saint James Theater in 1895 in London).
In adhering to my general practice of first reviewing shows most convenient in proximity to the Rossmoor Community in Walnut Creek, I will pull back the curtain on one of the best productions mounted in the Town Hall Theater in recent memory.

“The Importance of being Earnest” was originally set in the Victorian era and the play’s great humor is derived from a mixture of very witty dialogue and the hysterical complications resulting from the two lead characters, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthington (playboys of that period), attempting to mask their “Double Lives”, double lives perpetuated in order to escape unwanted and unwelcome social obligations. The play is a pointed satire of the male hypocrisies prevalent in Victorian society, a hypocrisy that has continued on into the 20th and 21st century.

Director Susannah Martin has moved this story forward into the racy and irreverent 1920’s, another time that seems perfectly suited to this mentality. The story revolves around Algernon (Christopher Kristant) who lives in a little London flat, and his very best friend, whom he knows as Earnest Worthington (Ryan O’Donnell), and who lives on an estate in the outlying countryside. Earnest has arrived at Algernon’s London home, with the intention of becoming engaged to Algernon’s beautiful cousin, Gwendolen (Sally Clawson). Algernon, however, has found a mysterious cigarette case, in his flat that he is sure is the property of Earnest. However, before Algernon will allow Earnest the opportunity to propose to his cousin, he wants an explanation of the inscription in the case which says, "From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack." Who is “Little Cecily, and why is Earnest also going by the name of “Jack”. Earnest is ultimately forced to reveal that his real name is Jack and that when he is in the city, he assumes the name of a fictitious brother, Earnest. When in the country, Jack assumes a serious adult attitude for the benefit of his ward, Cecily, the granddaughter of Jack's late adoptive father, but when in the big city, he assumes the name and behavior of the scoundrel brother, Ernest. Algernon laughs and reveals that he too has created a convenient fictitious friend, who provides a screen for him to escape having to attend social events and obligations, most especially those events thrown often by his aunt, Lady Bracknell (Nancy Sale). Algernon’s made-up-pseudo-friend is a gentleman he calls Mr. Bunbury. It seems that this dear friend of Algernon has a very poor constitution and is a person of decidedly poor health. The fictitious Bunbury always manages to cry out to Algernon Moncrieff for assistance when Algernon wants to avoid an unpleasant event of one sort or another. Mr. Jack Worthington it seems, has a scoundrel no-count brother, Earnest, who is always in trouble, and to whose assistance his dear brother (Jack) must rush when ever called upon to do so. These fictitious characters also add to their benefactors’ benevolent mystique.

Earnest (in reality, Jack Worthington) does find the opportunity to propose to Gwendolen, but his attempt to gain acceptance is rebuffed by Lady Bracknell, when the mother discovers that Earnest cannot prove lineage satisfactory to the “society” enamored Lady Bracknell. It seems that Earnest is a foundling, adopted into very fortunate circumstances by a family of wealth and high community stature. As a very small infant he was discovered in a large valise in a coatroom at Victoria Station, apparently abandoned by his mother.

Gwendolen tells “Earnest” that she will always love him, that she has always dreamed of being married to a man with such an absolutely perfect name as “Earnest”. Dismayed at his unfortunate lack of suitable heritage, plus the fact that his love will not marry anyone who is not named “Earnest”, Jack determines that he must do away with his fictitious brother and assume his brother’s name, through the act of being christened with that name.

Algernon is very intrigued as to the look and appeal of Worthington’s country ward, Cecily, as described by Earnest, and manages to obtain her address. He rushes off to the country (pretending to be Earnest Worthington, the scoundrel brother of Jack Worthington), seeking forgiveness and redemption at the hands of Cecily. He meets and falls madly in love with her. Before the final curtain comes down, both playboys will discover how ill advised it is to live a double life, and how complex the answer to the question, “what’s in a name”, can be!

Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism (Trish Tillman), unknowingly holds the key to another mystery, an implausible explanation to the origin and the rightful heritage of Jack Worthington, himself. In addition to the very complex playboy story, lies another romance brewing in the country between Miss Prism and the local parish rector, Dr. Chasuble (Don Wood).

As a sub-note, “The Importance of being Earnest” is historically a very important play by its author (a suspected homosexual during that period), and the last play Wilde penned, in that within 100 days of the opening of this show, he was thrown into jail for his lascivious behavior with his male lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. When Algernon explained to Earnest that he was going to go off “Bunburying” (meaning he was using the excuse of getting out of things he didn’t want to do, by pretending to come to the rescue of his friend “Bunbury”), many thought that phrase was actually meant to be a very clever double entendre (ambiguous sexually suggestive remark) acknowledging Wilde’s proclivity for homosexual activities. The opening production closed after only 83 performances, due in large part to the adverse publicity surrounding the Wilde trial. The play has gone on to be one of the playwright’s most often done plays ever, since its original stumbling, shadowed success.

The acting quality is definitely on a professional level and the cast individually and as a total ensemble, bring this work to its full potential. As I left the theatre this past Saturday, members of the audience were heaping accolades on this exceptional local production, many saying it was the best they have ever seen in this theater.

Director Savannah Martin and her production team has sculpted a very well crafted production through her selection of many elements, first a pluperfect professional level cast, a brilliant scenic designer (Nina Ball), the right lighting (Chris Guptill), exquisite costume design, led by Rebecca Castelli and assisted by Alison Vail, and of course, a most important element in this production, a superb sound designer, in Patrick Kaliski. This play, in the wrong hands, is just another trivial comedic pursuit, but in this production, with its very precise execution and attention to detail, you will be rewarded with an entertainment experience that is quite exceptional in local or regional theatre! The set is an art deco masterpiece and the costume design is truly excellent. I actually want to go back and see it again.

I strongly recommend this remarkable production which continues Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 14th, and a 7 p.m., production on Sunday, March 21st. Call (925) 283-1557 for reservations or additional information or visit their web site at http://www.townhalltheatre.com/. Ticket prices range between $$26.50 and $29.50 each.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle leaves me grasping for answers - - -

Now, to take you across the bay to San Francisco and the very thought-provoking production crafted by noted, award winning director, John Doyle and as translated by Dominique Lozano. Brecht’s epic theatrical playwriting style is interesting and provocative for its unique style and purpose. As a young writer, Brecht was proclaimed as a new voice in the theatrical world in his mother Germany. From his late twenties Brecht became a lifelong advocate for socialist reform and a committed Marxist. His style of writing has influenced legions of writers to come after him, following his popularization and development of the theory of ‘Epic Theater’ and his practice of using theater as a forum to express and extol political ideas. One of the goals of epic theater, was his belief that the audience should always be aware that it is watching a play, that it does not become lost in an illusion, that the participants should absorb the message intended by the author and not lose sight of it by accepting the work as a fantasy. Brecht's own social and political focus departed from surrealism and the Theatre of Cruelty, as developed in the writings and dramaturgy of Antonin Artaud, who sought to affect audiences viscerally, psychologically, physically, and irrationally.

Feeling persecuted by the Nazis, Brecht left Germany in 1933 and moved to America, and eventually lived in southern California. During the war years, he continually expressed opposition to the National Socialist and Fascist movements in all of his famous plays, including: Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person of Szechwan, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, and many others.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a parable taken from a Chinese play, that Brecht modernized by changing the ending. The basic story tells of a peasant girl who steals a baby, declares it as her own, becomes a better mother than its natural parent, and is eventually called to task during a trial brought by the child’s mother seeking to regain the custody of the child. The play is based during the trials and tribulations of war, touches on the evils of wealth, curses the Gestapo type mentality of the country’s military controlled government, and extols the values of collective community participation.

I frankly had great difficulty in re-connecting to what I had remembered as my understanding of the original Brecht play (which was a play within a play), especially with Dominic Lozano’s re-telling of the story. The outside play was originally set in the Soviet Union around the end of the Second World War. It described a dispute between two communes, the Rosa Luxemburg fruit growing commune and the Galinsk goat farming commune, over whose right it is to own and manage an area of farm land after the Nazis have retreated from a village and left it abandoned. A parable had been crafted by one group, a retelling of an old folk tale, to be dramatized to cast light on the dispute. The story teller or “Singer”, Arkadi Cheidze, arrives with his band of musicians, where they tell the peasants the fable, which forms the main narrative, and intertwines throughout much of the play. The “Singer” often takes on the thoughts of characters, enhances the more dramatic scenes by actual participation in the internal story and delivering a strong narration.

While the story of the servant who finds the abandoned infant and takes it away as her own is still the main focus, I became distracted by the overpowering implementation of falling and rising lighting booms and fixtures, gun thunder and artifices of floating backdrops and the mixture of the many different types of attire worn (including Afghan) by the actors, to drive the chaos and complexity of war in the story. I came away with mixed feelings. In some ways I enjoyed the originality of the director’s ideas, but I also came away very uncomfortable with the characterizations. I liked the unique musicality and totally disliked the falling screen barrier that kept coming down between the audience and the actors. I just didn’t get it!

This is a very unique production and you will either like it or come away as I did, not thoroughly satisfied. The acting is always premier in this theater, but in that there are many different characters having to be played by the same actors, the separation of characters was just not convincing to me. I loved the lead actress, Omoze Idehenre, and enjoyed Manoel Felciano (the Singer), plus Anthony Fusco, Rod Gnapp, Gregory Wallace, Rene Augesen and Caroline Hewitt. For the most part Jack Willis was terrific, but when, as the judge, he began to include the audience in his decision making process, it totally distracted me and it became what I saw as a somewhat silly sideshow detour. Further, one of the actors seemed to be still working with a script in hand. If he was an understudy, then he should have been described as such before the show opened with an explanation.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle continues Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., now through March 14th in the American Conservatory Theatre located at 415 Geary Street in San Francisco. Tickets range in price between $17 and $82 each. Call (415) 740-2228 or visit their website at http://www.act-sf.org/ for reservations or more information.