Chalk opens amid chaos one Easter Sunday during a revolt that culminates in hangings and fires. In the middle of it all, palace guard Peter Sedovski (Jon Reynolds) places a cross around the neck of kitchen maid Alma Novak (Natasha Gallop) as a marriage proposal before each flees on differing quests.
Based on a 14th century Chinese play, The Circle of Chalk, this classic tale has been adapted or redrawn in French, German, and English, all with variances in location and backdrop. Here that is Tarusa, Russia during the Revolution, with Alma becoming the unassuming hero who rescues and raises the baby of the slain Governor Panovnik (Josh Adams) until his wife Natalia (Raven Bonniwell) turns up and demands her child be returned.
Of course, there is a catch. Alma has grown to love the baby with whom she’s endured danger and misfortune for the last year while Natalia, who abandoned the child to save her own neck, can’t access her dead husband’s fortune without his rightful heir. Thus, a flawed, but compassionate, drunken judge named Zeke (Josh Adams) weighs each woman’s claim as the rightful mother. But, instead of awarding custody, he draws a chalk circle around the child and commands them to, basically, play tug of war. Whoever pulls the hardest, wins. But only the person with genuine love in her heart won’t risk this horrendous, potentially deadly act.
The sheer physical prowess needed for such a complex play is impressive. Alma traverses rivers and mountains while being pursued by a hateful Sergeant (Louis E. Davis) and seeks help from anyone she meets on the road, which will be actors playing multiple roles. Impressive especially for this is a long play with no intermission in a stuffy venue at the height of summer.
Ann Fraistat and Bonniwell, in particular, are a dynamic duo, often paired as frenemies: an unhappy couple, master and servant, and polar opposite family members.
Adams’ Zeke is as enigmatic as I imagine Jim Morrison would be while acid tripping during a concert. He’s nothing if not candid. He’s also an opportunist whose self-preservation conflicts with his desire to do the right thing, leading him to take up the judging mantel while anarchy reigns. Zeke, in his pub talks with friends, including Jerren (Davis), Tomas (Robert Pike), and a soldier (Bonniwell), gets preachy and his pulpit does become a bit burdened with philosophy.
He’s also beholden to the people. And not in a good way. ”I put you in this chair,” the Soldier tells him at one point, “And now you’ll rule in my favor.” This is probably why he drinks so much.
Gallop’s Alma is sincere. Nothing—not the revolution and the sight of death or her distasteful acts of self-preservation shake her innate goodness and resolve to do what is ultimately right: protect the child.
closes July 9, 2016
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Chalk is, though, a bit back and forth on style. At moments, it really digs its heels into the vernacular and speech of old Russia. At others, not so much, though overall the adaptation remains true not just to its source material but also the era in which it is set. Authenticity shines through in the music and sounds in a very palpable way. What’s genuinely ingenuous is the use of a chalkboard backdrop. The actors draw scenes and elements of the story atop a permanent depiction of a city offset by mountains. It’s a very trendy take on the black box that adds a layer of expression and plays nicely into the story as a whole.
The ending is satisfying—maybe too much so for a tale that spends a lot of time pointing out the injustices of the world. It’s a long journey of a play, with scenes that vacillate between Alma’s flight and Zeke’s courtroom (or pub) which sometimes feel a bit redundant – the same, but just slightly different, dialogue or dilemma filled with (more) philosophical pondering. My annoyance, though, could have been the heat and lack of a break, which wore me down towards the end.
Still, Chalk is an intriguing take on an ancient play with a dash of newness and a lovely band of rag-tag characters played to the hilt.
Chalk . Adapted from the Chinese play Circle of Chalk by We Happy Few. Directed by Kerry McGee. Featuring Josh Adams, Raven Bonniwell, Louis E. Davis, Ann Fraistat, Natasha Gallop, Robert Pike, and Jon Reynolds. Production: Jason Aufdem-Brinke (Lighting Design), Dean Leong (Set Design), Julie Leong (Costume Design), Adelaide Waldrop (Chalk Design), Robert Pike (Sound Design), Raven Bonniwell (Movement Director), Josh Adams (Fight Captain), Jon Reynolds (Music Captain), Ally Rocha (Costume and Set Assistant), Keith Hock (Production Manager and Dramaturg), Sam Reilly (Stage Manager), Samantha Owen (Assistant Stage Manager) . Produced by We Happy Few . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.