Kecia Lewis is nearly heroic as Mother Courage in the Classic Stage Company’s production of Brecht’s anti-war epic – not the way she’s playing the character, but the actress herself, because she agreed to take over from Tonya Pinkins, who left two days before the show’s planned January 7th opening.
The CSC replaced Pinkins with Lewis, delaying the opening by just 12 days. Mother Courage and Her Children will now close five days after it has opened – the last little oddity in a backstage drama that in some ways is more engaging than the one on stage.
Pinkins issued a statement explaining the creative differences she had with director Brian Kulick, whose production transposes the setting of Brecht’s play from the Thirty Years’ War in 17th Century Europe to the conflict that continues to this day in the African nation of the Congo. Kulick also asked Duncan Sheik (composer of Spring Awakening and the forthcoming Broadway musical American Psycho) to compose more than a half dozen songs.
Pinkins’ major accusations against the production itself (as opposed to her complaints about her interaction with the director and other cast members and the way African-American women are denied a voice in the theater) were that Mother Courage was being depicted as delusional rather than strong, and that there was nothing specific about the Congo in the piece
More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
As it turns out, in Kecia Lewis’s hands Mother Courage is indeed strong – both fierce and earthy as an itinerant merchant who tries to make a profit over whichever side is winning the war at the moment. Lewis has a commanding, robust singing voice (she is a veteran of six Broadway musicals), and a persuasively intimidating stance, in one scene brandishing a machete and staring down a military recruiter trying to enlist one of her sons. But as Mother Courage, she is also, as Brecht wrote her, delusional, thinking that she can somehow protect her three children from the savagery of war – when in fact she cannot stop their corruption (one turns into a war criminal) and hastens their deaths.
The setting in the Congo is indicated by the credible African accents of the all-black ten-member cast, by the design team’s lush green vegetation, modern military uniforms and weaponry, and full-sized vehicles. In place of her famous cart, Mother Courage now has a Jeep. All this Congo-ization is, as Pinkins accused, primarily décor. There is no effort to adjust the dialogue to fit the setting; should there be? What would Brecht think?
The fine-tuned (and admittedly fascinating) arguments that have been provoked over this production – about the limits and possibilities of adaptation, and cultural appropriation, and under-representation, etc. — seem almost beside the point when watching the show, since, for all her strengths, Lewis simply has not had enough time to prepare fully for what is often called the King Lear of female roles.
At the press performance at which I saw her, she was holding the script, and occasionally calling out for a line, as if still in rehearsal. Another one of the cast members also left abruptly, although reportedly for a movie, forcing his understudy to master a half dozen characters at the last minute. Perhaps due to this disruption, although cut to just two hours (another Pinkins complaint) this Mother Courage still seemed at times less than well-paced and energetic. Even those seeking out the show because of Duncan Sheik’s African-inflected melodies are likely to be disappointed by the tinny sound of the recorded music.
In the face of all this, there are some arresting performances. Michael Potts, who was so watchable as the cool-headed Muslim hit man in The Wire, makes for a cool cucumber as the chaplain. Kevin Mambo (Fela) is a sexy cook who is unable to domesticate Mother Courage. The stand-out is Mirirai Sithole as Mother Courage’s mute daughter Kattrin, who defiantly beats a drum to warn villagers that the soldiers plan to kill them. The character is ineffective; the actress very affecting. Would Brecht approve?
Mother Courage and Her Children is on stage at the Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th St., New York, N.Y. 10003) through January 24, 2016
Tickets and Details
Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht . Directed by Brian Kulick . Translated by John Willett . Cast: Joshua Boone (Recruiter/Soldier/Young Soldier), Curtiss Cook Jr. (Eilif), Kecia Lewis (Mother Courage), Kevin Mambo (Cook), Jamil A. C. Mangan (Sergeant/Armorer/One-Eyed Man/Clerk/Corporal/Soldier/Ensign), Geoffrey Owens (General/Colonel/Soldier/Older Soldier/Peasant/Peasant Father), Michael Potts (Chaplain), Deandre Sevon (Swiss Cheese/Boy), Mirirai Sithole (Kattrin) and Zenzi Williams (Yvette/Peasant Mother) . Music by Duncan Sheik . Sets by Tony Straiges . Costumes by Toni-Leslie James . Lighting by Justin Townsend . Sound by Matt Stine . Music Director: Brian J. Nash . Fight Director: J. David Brimmer . Production Stage Manager: Terri K. Kohler . Produced by Classic Stage Company . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.