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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mid-Century Epic

Theater Review

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  The UWM Department of Theatre closes its season with a production of Bertolt Brecht’s classic mid-century drama The Caucasian Chalk Circle. An ambitious project helmed by Raeleen McMillion, senior lecturer at UWM’s Theatre Department and Renaissance Theaterworks co-founder, this production of Brecht’s epic features a cast of over 50 actors in full costume inspired by the classical Chinese roots of the story. Though the full force of 50 never feels as massive as it truly is, McMillion populates the stage with a haunting sense of visual composition, occasionally letting a brief glimpse of the immensity of the production slip through the substance of the story.

  Kaija Rayne plays Grusha Vashnadze, a kitchen maid who promises herself to Simon Shashava—a soldier going off to war played by Jason Waszak. The tumultuous events that begin the play find Grusha looking after the infant child of a governor’s wife, on the run from those who would kill it. Rayne is brilliant in the role, delicately washing shades of emotion through the character as she slowly begins to accept the child as her own. Rayne’s portrayal of Grusha’s self-sacrifice is both convincing and memorable.

  The plot glides along to a showdown at the end of the play between Grusha and the child’s biological mother. A judge must decide which mother will get custody of the child, but since this is The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the play has to grind through a long and winding story about the history of the judge destined to decide the child’s fate. In a less than adequate production of the play, this could easily tax an audience’s patience. Thankfully, the UWM production has Michael Patrick Cotey in the role of Judge Azdak. Brecht wrote Azdak to be a fascinating character. He’s an iconoclastic trickster—that clever mix of brash and shrewd intellect with the subtlest whiff of ugly vanity. Cotey, who recently appeared in Equus with In Tandem and Milwaukee Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, has the kind of talent that carves a stunningly entertaining performance out of a character like Azdak. He has the poise and stage presence of a leading professional actor. The comedy of the character comes through with such texture and clarity that Cotey’s performance stops microns short of upstaging everything else onstage.

  UWM’s production of The Caucasian Calk Circle closed April 27. This summer, Michael Cotey appears in a pair of plays with the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington.

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