ACT brings Brecht to life

Surely German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s lengthy, epic satires with music, packed as they are with anti-war themes and other social and political commentary, are among the most challenging of plays for modern audiences to follow. “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” first produced in 1948, is no exception.

Nor does American Conservatory Theater’s world premiere of director/designer John Doyle’s new version, featuring a seamlessly contemporary-sounding translation by Domenique Lozano and a thrilling score by Nathaniel Stookey, offer complete clarity – which may be an impossible task anyway.

But whether you understand every plot point and can identify every character or not, it’s a terrifically entertaining ride and packs a solid Brechtian gut punch.

The play, which examines and pokes fun at the vagaries of human nature, begins with a military coup in a nonspecific “princedom” at war.

The governor is arrested, and his wife, in her haste to escape, leaves behind her infant son. A servant girl, Grusche, about to run for safety, lingers long enough to be wooed by a soldier, and, seized with compassion, to snatch the abandoned baby.

Much later, when order is finally restored to the land, the governor and his wife demand their son back, and Grusche must plead with the judge to let her keep the child that she now loves as her own.

Doyle’s actors perform in a presentational and quasi-metatheatrical style on a stark, industrial-grit set.

Effects such as a broken chain-link fence that rises and falls, a light grid that occasionally crashes down, and sound designer Cliff Caruthers’ deafening warning sirens and clamor all serve to create a palpable sense of war and chaos.

Performers change roles in plain view, leave the demarcated central performance area to loiter visibly on the periphery awaiting their cues, play assorted instruments and form a ragtag ensemble that sings (a particular highlight of the show), narrates and comments on the action. A large pillow stands in for the disputed baby.

Omozé Idehenre is fierce and touching as the hapless Grusche, and the cast as a whole, including ACT company members René Augesen, Jack Willis (particularly hilarious as the judge in the final trial scene), Manoel Felciano, Anthony Fusco and Gregory Wallace, shows off its versatility to fine effect in multiple roles.

This is a production Brecht would no doubt have loved.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Presented by American Conservatory Theater

Where: 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays
Tickets: $10 to $82
Contact: (415) 749-2228,

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