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We Happy Few’s production of CHALK, the program notes, marks a first for the company: the first time they’ve collectively adapted a text (the Chinese legend of the Chalk Circle) for the stage. It’s immediately clear that the company has set its sights higher than mere translation—the story pulls from a host of other influences and references, especially Eastern European. And yet despite what is, overall, an engaging evening of theater, the company sometimes struggles to make things come together for their audience.
CHALK’s seven actors portray twenty-one distinct characters that populate a war-torn fictional country, in settings from the capital to the countryside. The central storyline, about the disputed parenthood of a royal baby, eventually touches all of the characters, though many characters’ storylines don’t pull together until the final scene. It’s a daunting task for the audience to keep up with all this, but small costume changes (designed expertly by Julie Leong) help the actors inhabit the comfortable archetypes—cowardly nobles, earnest peasants, philosophical drunks—who guide the story.
Indeed, it’s not the double-, triple-, or quadruple-casting that makes the story occasionally difficult to relate to. The performances are strong across the board, and the actors display tremendous range. (Natasha Gallop, the only actor who plays one role throughout, is the heartbeat of the show, grounding the sometimes-outlandish plot with genuine emotion and passion.)
The problem is that the company often struggles with clarity and a sure command of tone. Character motivations naturally shift as the war progresses, and it’s often unclear who is in charge and why. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the characters, especially Zeke (Josh Adams), a voluble peasant-turned-judge, tend to dive headlong into discursive rants about power and human nature, passages that intrigue the audience at first, but eventually start to test our patience.
The show also features several moments of dramatic and sometimes disturbing intensity—including scenes of violence towards women—that clash with the moments of levity. The intimate black box space at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop puts us in close proximity to the actors (who occasionally interact with audience members). Considering the subject matter, this can often feel like a downright perilous closeness. As a result, when the show goes for comic relief (or even the occasional musical interlude), it falls flat.
But there are many times when the action is clarified just enough for the emotional moments to resonate as intended. The use of the chalk, designed by Adelaide Waldrop, is particularly inspired. And ultimately, the company does a more-than-adequate job of bringing together the disparate strands of the story for an interesting conclusion that directly echoes the Chinese legend. It’s a lively and occasionally bewitching experience. But in the end, it can’t help but feel that the story has, in some ways, outreached the company’s grasp.