Thinking versus feeling, politics versus pathos, pleasure versus instruction—these dialectics often arise in discussing Bertolt Brecht’s revolutionary “epic theatre”, and the idea that these qualities exist in opposition feeds the common perception that Brecht belongs to the canon of “important” artists who offer little in the way of entertainment, and whose works we must suffer through for our edification.
Molly Smith does not agree.
Brecht himself wrote that “Theatre remains theatre even when it is instructive theatre, and in so far as it is good theatre, it will amuse.” With her new production of Mother Courage and Her Children at Arena Stage, Smith sets out to prove that we can have it all. Deploying wit, brutality, and high theatricality, Smith presents a Mother Courage where the political and emotional coexist, where viewers are given license to criticize and empathize.
Leading the cast is another woman who seeks to have it all: Kathleen Turner, known best as the leading lady of blockbuster Hollywood adventures like Body Heat and Romancing the Stone, has in recent years added some of theatre’s greatest roles to her resumé. Having garnered Tony nominations for the iconic Maggie of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Turner now tackles the great anti-hero Mother Courage, a tough-as-nails business woman with a mission to get her three children out of the war alive.
Turner commands the stage for nearly three hours with her earthy bravado, impeccable timing, and salacious appetite for all things irony. Turner’s Mother Courage occasionally exposes her soft and sensual core, which she has to bury to survive the war. Mother Courage disguises herself beneath layers of sarcasm and mischief, spouting amoral and nihilistic idioms with a Cheshire-cat grin. Over the course of the play, we see the outside slowly take over who she is—Mother Courage grows ever more attached to her business selling goods at the front, at one point choosing her income over the life of her son.
When peace comes, ironically, she feels vulnerable and exposed, because she is used to depending on the war for survival. Mother Courage begins the play with three children and a cart of goods, and ends with only the cart. Along the way, it’s a thrill to watch Turner’s Mother Courage harden as she buries the guilt of her worst decisions for as long as possible—and we are made to wonder if she ever had a choice at all.
The supporting cast of Mother Courage and Her Children all work to realize Smith’s vision of a vital and immediate epic theatre. Between each episode, the players take up banjos, sousaphones, accordions, and drums to accompany each other in a series of tongue-in-cheek morality songs that expose the topsy-turvy virtues of war. During these transitions, set pieces tumble down from above into the bleak gray pit of Todd Rosenthal’s set, and the company frolics about to the choreography of David Leong.
The lyrics of these musical numbers are translated from Brecht’s original text, but the production features a new score by James Sugg. Sugg’s compositions have a fresh and contemporary effect, but still pay homage to the music of Kurt Weill (who collaborated with Brecht on The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) and to the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan. The ensemble’s singing is never too pretty—and certainly not Turner’s—but one quickly realizes that this is the idea.
Smith’s production may seek to entertain, but there’s no denying that Mother Courage is an ugly play about an ugly world. A few of the musical numbers didn’t quite “land” per se, but the production is young—I prefer to note that several of them soared: Meg Gillentine belted out a sultry and exhilarating interpretation of the “Fraternization Song” as the war-camp hooker Yvette, while Jack Willis’s bawdy Cook led a joyful ensemble in the brazen send-up of virtue, “Solomon’s Song (You’re Better Without).”
Arena Stage veterans Nehal Joshi and Nicholas Rodriquez shine as Mother Courage’s ill-fated sons, while Erin Weaver steals the final scenes as the mute, disfigured daughter Kattrin.
MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN
Closes March 9, 2014
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Approximately 2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $45 – $109
Tuesdays thru Sundays
With its scathing indictments of power and society at the broadest level, Mother Courage and Her Children remains timely during war and peace— as such, I was thrilled to see a production that incorporates a great deal of pleasure without compromising the political message. Brecht’s iconic distancing techniques were deployed to prompt reflection and even judgement, but the production still gave us space to empathize with the characters if we so choose. I was disappointed by another critic’s description of it as an abstract exercise for contemporary audiences and likening it to a museum exhibit. Brecht uses war to crack open the amoral reality of capitalist society, exposing how war is a part of business-as-usual, and not an aberration from it. Violence is present in Mother Courage, to be sure, but the play isn’t about armed conflict so much as the power structure that war reinforces.
Mother Courage and Her Children at Arena Stage: a great actress takes on one of the most greatest plays of the 20th century, propped up by a capable cast and impeccable production.
In a word: go!
Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht . Directed by Molly Smith . Featuring Kathleen Turner, Jack Willis, Rick Foucheux, Meg Gillentine, Nehal Joshi, Nicholas Rodriguez, Erin Weaver, Nathan Koci, Monalisa Arias, Lise Bruneau, Jed Feder, Rayanne Gonzales, Jacobi Howard, Dan Istrate, James Konicek, Jesse Terrill, John Leslie Wolfe.
Composer & Musical Supervisor: James Sugg . Movement Director: David Leong . Set Designer: Todd Rosenthal . Costume Designer: Joseph P. Salasovich . Lighting Designer: Nancy Schertler . Sound Designer: Timothy M. Thompson . Wig Designer: Anne Nesmith . Dramaturg: Mark Bly . Assistant Fight & Movement Consultant: Brad Willcuts . Stage Manager: Susan R. White, assisted by Kurt Hall and Marne Anderson.
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
Jeff Walker . BroadwayWorld
Trey Graham . City Paper
Bob Ashby . ShowBizRadio
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Winnefred Ann Frolik . WomanAroundTown
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Peter Marks . Washington Post
John Stoltenberg . MagicTime!
Robert Michael Oliver . MDTheatreGuide
Sophia Howes . DCMetroTheaterGuide