In Scena Theatre’s riveting production of the 1941 Brechtian classic, an almost palpable air of death and defeat hovers over the dun-colored, dirt-covered cement-floor set, making the occasional flashes of brilliant color a visual and psychological assault on the senses. This is not only scenically effective, but forms a subtle counterpart to the German masterwork’s occasionally epigrammatic, even sententiously didactic lines, which stick out from the play’s expressionless, pedestrian prose like crabgrass on a parched field.
Separated from us by six decades, four centuries and a continent (written in the wake of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, it takes place during the Thirty Years’ War, principally in Germany), Mother Courage and Her Children is the epitome of epic theatre; Brecht’s masterpiece seeks to distance the audience emotionally from the story being enacted onstage, to break the “fourth wall,” to never let us forget that we are watching actors. And yet, what strikes us most powerfully in Scena’s compelling production is how incisively – and disturbingly – the characters and circumstances of this play speak to us, and to our time.
The staging is simple but effective and technically true to the concept of epic theatre, with each scene functioning independently while the structure maintains a fundamental coherency. Narrative captions take the form of video images, alternately text and black-and-white photos, illustrative on a sometimes literal, sometimes figurative level, filling large square screens suspended above the stage.
The music, by prominent German composer Achim Gieseler, is fully in the spirit of Brecht collaborator Kurt Weill, its era-leaping atonality – Praetorius-cum-Schoenberg – a striking musical underline to the moral dissonance of many of the characters.
The play (the twelve scenes, recalling perhaps with intent the Schoenbergian 12-tone technique, cover a 12-year period) begins with a sort of extrinsic prelude: the audience is immediately drawn into the action, yet acutely aware of the “unreality” of the scene. Two soldiers, one seated in the first row, the other on the staircase separating the two banks of seats, address each other across the aisle. Humorously, but with a hint of portent, they chew the fat on the life of a soldier; they are among us, and they are warning us. But they are apart from us.
The squeal of worn and tired wheels announces the arrival of Mother Courage (the incomparable Nancy Robinette who seems to breathe Brecht, with an instinctive understanding of his no-frills dramatic ethos), who pulls her squeaky, battered wagon onstage like a mule in harness, accompanied by her three children. Kattrin (Colleen Delaney, who despite Brecht’s ostensible dictates, fully and rewardingly inhabits her character) is a developmentally delayed young woman whose childlike innocence, accentuated by her refusal or inability to speak, is complemented by an exquisite, almost preternatural grace and a stubborn, uncompromising sense of right and wrong.
Swiss Cheese (Rashard Harrison in a well-crafted, sensitive portrayal that slowly creeps up on you until, without any warning, you’re sitting there shattered), works as the army paymaster. A well-meaning, good-hearted guy whose sweetness suffuses his face (“I’ve brought you up to be honest,” sighs the exasperated Courage, “but you’ve got to know where to stop!”), the hapless lad gets caught trying to do the right thing, and pays for it with his life. Eilif (Joe Baker, probably the most tuneless of the group, no doubt intentionally so, a musical match for the character’s callow personality) is a teeth-grindingly perfect Reformation incarnation of the punk next door who set fire to your cat’s tail and would probably be serving time if he weren’t serving his country.
A woman for whom the expression “tough old broad” would be as close in accuracy as sandpaper is to sand, Courage, at least as portrayed by Robinette, has a heart that beats beneath the harshly earned scar tissue around it. Torn between supporting the war because it provides her with her livelihood and opposing it because it demands her sons, Courage is challenged by the recruiter and the sergeant (Frank Britton and Lee Ordeman) when she resists sending them off to fight. “You want this war to fatten up your kids,” he sneers, indicating her cart, stocked with provisions for sale and barter, “but you don’t want to invest in it.” Threatening the sergeant with a knife, Courage is chagrined to find her sons’ sense of adventure and excitement kindled by the officers’ rousing tales of the glories of battle. Seeing that she has no choice, Courage makes the best deal she can manage, and – Robinette is masterful here as Courage’s eyes envisage a future she clearly fears, yet is helpless to prevent – watches the recruiting officer steer Eilif away.
It is two years later. A bright, bold spray of flowers and feathers sprouting from a golden vase is in cheerful, and as the scene progresses, offensive contrast to the drabness of the earlier decor. Eilif, who has found his place in an army where gratuitous brutality, at least towards the enemy, is generously rewarded, is praised by the general (Ted Monks) for having “hacked them all to pieces,” along with their cattle. Assenting by virtue of his silence is the clearly uncomfortable Chaplain (Kryztov Lindquist, whose variable shadings of character make the Chaplain one of the play’s most interesting people), handsomely clad from head to toe in elegant black with a large, long white scarf flowing down the front. Upon arriving home, Eilif is stunned when his mother, rather than celebrate his exploits, instead whacks him across the face (no stage slap here; Robinette delivers and Baker falls back), not for their gratuitous goriness but for having risked his life, rather than run away to save his own skin.
That’s a mistake, we suspect, Yvette, the official camp prostitute, would never make. Jenifer Belle Deal is picture perfect; her wildly streaming carrot-colored hair challenges the screaming reds, yellows and oranges of her flimsy wraparound, topped off by black fishnet stockings and red heels. Recounting her countless liaisons, all of which invariably end in tragedy or heartbreak, she sings the outwardly hilarious but ultimately moving “Fraternization Song,” accompanied by suggestively vulgar horns and drums. Deal’s the real deal, and brings a surprisingly subdued self-awareness to Yvette’s Merman-like raucousness and West-like lasciviousness. Hoping to dissuade Kattrin from acting on her burgeoning feminine impulses, Courage attempts to use Yvette as an object lesson, only to find Kattrin (who, curiously, is also outfitted in bright red) fascinated by her and covetous of her sexy red heels. Her attempts with Kattrin, as with her other children, will fail dismally.
Mother Courage is nothing if not practical – “Thank God they’re corruptible,” she says at one point. “Corruption’s our only hope” – a human prototype for Brecht’s concept of war as “the continuation of business by other means.” But she will pay in the dearest coin for her proud practicality, and yet in the end fail to acknowledge or even to see the destruction it has wrought. “There’s nothing to keep the war from going on forever,” the Chaplain tells her, a statement that brings chills to anyone whose country is at war. It provides excitement, gives meaning to people’s lives, strengthens their religious beliefs, and offers them the chance for glory and renown, even if it must be posthumous. And as a bonus, he observes, there are those (aptly named) layovers, where soldiers can get acquainted with the locals and breed future soldiers for the next war.
Courage’s world will ultimately lie in ruins around her. She will fail, too, in her relationship with the Cook (the disarmingly gruff Delaney Williams), who will suddenly break the fourth wall, and character, when Courage rejects his proposal to go home with him to start all over. “Now we’d like to sing you a little song,” he tells us, suddenly alarmingly oily, “so you can see we’re decent folks.” What it does, of course, is raise our suspicions, and cause us to look at him in a completely new way. And what it does to the heretofore voiceless Kattrin will cause us to reevaluate not only her or the play or its characters – or their history and ours – but maybe, most alarmingly, ourselves. “A play is more instructive than truth,” wrote Brecht, “because the war it portrays seems more than an experimental situation created to give insights; i.e., the audience puts itself in the position of the student – if the play is done right.” [my translation] In Scena’s production, under the capable direction of noted Berlin director Gabriele Jakobi, the play is done right.
Note: There appeared to be some problems with the sound, with song lyrics occasionally inaudible or incomprehensible; I later learned that this affects only the far left-hand side of the theatre. The musical accompaniment also occasionally drowned out the singers, although that too may have been a function of where I was sitting.
Mother Courage and Her Children
by Bertolt Brecht .translated by John Willett
directed by Gabriele Jakobi
produced by Scena Theatre
reviewed by Leslie Weisman
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