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'The Caucasian Chalk Circle' review: Ah, Christopher Lloyd

From left, Christopher Lloyd and Tom Riis Farrell

From left, Christopher Lloyd and Tom Riis Farrell in Brecht's "Caucasian Chalk Circle," with music by Duncan Sheik, At Classic Stage Company. Credit: Joan Marcus

'Terrible is the temptation to do good," softly growls the mysterious narrator played by the sepulchral and wondrous Christopher Lloyd at the tiny but mighty Classic Stage Company.

And so go the moral contradictions in "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," the 1944 epic parable that Bertolt Brecht wrote in Southern California after leaving Nazi Germany. And though the political and economic cynicism remains as unforgivingly Brechtian as ever, this late play does resolve in the two main characters being saved by their own acts of kindness. Hollywood happy-ending alert? Well, at least a little justice.

In director Brian Kulick's thoughtful if overly tricked-up new version, the satire of endless revolution followed by corruption (followed by revolution, then corruption) is set in Russia around the fall of the Soviet Union. A Coca-Cola sign appears on walls that used to have heroic poster art in Tony Straiges' ingeniously resourceful set. Mismatched old suitcases are rearranged to change scenes.

We are being entertained by an underfunded company of Russian actors who frame this play-within-a-play about a peasant girl who saves an aristocrat's baby and suffers horribly for her impulse. Every so often, the troupe's electricity blows out and we are pulled from her dire story into their own dire situation. When not in character, the actors grumble at one another in what sounds to this outsider as Russian.

Brecht always had some songs in the script, originally composed by Paul Dessau. Here we have haunting new ones with lyrics by W.H. Auden and music by Duncan Sheik ("Spring Awakening"). The songs, often accompanied by actors on violin and guitar, deftly mix Eastern-European folk harmonies with propulsive ticktock rhythms.

Elizabeth A. Davis, a Tony nominee for "Once," brings some of that show's bittersweet forthrightness and unfussy bite as Grusha, the brave, terrorized peasant. Mary Testa flaunts a big fur and a big nerve as the baby's uncaring mother, and Tom Riis Farrell plays a variety of military nasties with craven delight.

Then there is Lloyd, who rips off the narrator's stringy white wig to morph into Azdak, a bald, cadaverous, seemingly amoral bum. When corrupted law turns him into a judge, he adjudicates the fate of the child (a doll with huge woeful eyes) with the mad wisdom of a truth-seeking crook.

WHAT "The Caucasian Chalk Circle"

WHERE Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St.

INFO $60-$65; 212-352- 3101; classicstage.org

BOTTOM LINE Haunting Lloyd, engaging but tricked-up Brecht.

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