By Emily Bowers
Jeff Henderson looks around a room on the third floor of the Ryerson theatre school. The second-year theatre student’s eyes show signs of fatigue—he’s spent the past three weeks in rehearsal for his role of Azdak the judge in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Henderson fixes his gaze on director John Van Burek, who is explaining the meaning of the play the second-year theatre students will perform.
“It’s a story about the differences between human values and material values,” he says.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle places an ancient Chinese fable in revolutionary southern Russia. The play, written by Bertolt Brecht, tells the story of Grusha, a servant girl who flees with an abandoned child when the child is left alone in the revolution. The first act follows Grusha, played by second-year theatre student Stefanie Stanley, and the child.
The child’s biological mother, who Van Burek says represents society’s material side, comes back to claim her child, land and wealth.
“The audience is watching a lesson as well as a story,” says Van Burek, who has directed more than 80 plays throughout Canada.
“[Brecht] keeps trying to slap us around.” The audience should emerge questioning what we “get away with” in society, he says.
“Brecht takes a very different approach to acting. He tries to jar the audience,” Stanley says. She sees her job s relaying the overall message to the audience.
The play is structured so no scene lasts very long, resulting in an emotional roller coaster for spectators. “The most sentimental scenes are the most rushed,” Stanley says.
Before each scene a narrator tells the audience what they’re about to see. The play also necompasses music created by the students, who chose to develop and perform their own songs instead of using the original score of the play.
“It’s not sing-along songs,” Stanley says. “It’s a mish-mash.”
Van Burek calls the music, which is a mix of trumpet, accordion, piano and other instruments “dissonant,” all part of Brecht’s attempt to leave the audience wondering who has the right to the land, wealth and child.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle runs until April 1. Tickets are $10 for students and seniors and $15 for adults. Call the Theatre School’s box office at 979-5118.