Bertolt Brecht began writing Mother Courage and Her Children in 1938, when Germany was poised to plunge the globe into war. But in a conscious attempt to deflect any comparisons to events of the day, he purposefully set his now legendary antiwar piece in the 17th century during the Thirty Years War. He further crafted the play such that it be viewed with complete detachment, utilizing short scenes, strange ditties and a style of acting that intentionally keeps the audience from relating to the characters. Costume and scene changes are effected with the lights up; card slogans and snippets of narration interrupt and preview the action. The cerebral experience the playwright sought eventually got a high-toned academic name—Die Verfremdungseffekt—this “alienation effect” presuming to bring audiences to some objective realization of the horrors of war.
Yet the very act of pitching an antiwar message involves taking an emotional stand somewhere along the line, and Brecht’s post-World War II audience found plenty of personal meaning in Mother Courage. If the play must wear the mantle of pacifism in spite of itself, its creator’s idea of epic theater remains a controversial challenge for the ambitious theater companies that dare to mount it. In this regard, the new People’s Branch Theatre production is a success.
In spirit, the PBT staging under the helm of Jeffrey Frace aspires to Brechtian subversiveness, with all the playwright’s signature liberties in place. Frace uses the commonplace Eric Bentley translation of the script, though he allows his actors some occasional improvisational leeway with the historic words. Those passionate about Brecht’s work may question the director’s self-conscious insinuation of snare-drum rimshots to punctuate one-liners or his interpolation of lyrics from Edwin Starr’s 1970 pop hit “War” into Brecht’s dialogue.
The musical components are interesting throughout, thanks to Matthew Carlton, who has a key acting role, but more importantly oversees the creation of the songs and incidental textures, which feature a mix of modern and Old World instrumentation. In addition, the group chorale number opening the play is well-executed and caustically funny.
The key figure, of course, is Mother Courage herself, a harridan who drags her three children through war-torn Europe, peddling wares to whomever will buy. Helene Weigel, Brecht’s wife, supposedly served up a definitive rendition at the official 1949 premiere under the playwright’s direction. Since then, noteworthy English-language performances have been attempted—often with very mixed and sometimes disappointing results—by the likes of British producer/director Joan Littlewood, Dame Judi Dench, Diana Rigg, Glenda Jackson, Linda Hunt and Anne Bancroft. (A Meryl Streep production is forthcoming, with a new adaptation of the script by Tony Kushner.)
PBT hands this huge role to Brenda Sparks, who, with all her abrasiveness and cold practicality, embodies alienation itself. She drags her reluctant, war-weary carcass across the stage, evoking not an ounce of sentiment and dispensing bitter jokes in her wake. Sparks may take some getting used to—she never scores points for charm or affection or, indeed, even courage—but strives to get at the Brechtian ideal, and her workhorse effort is mostly successful.
The pathos comes in the form of Denice Hicks, who is Courage’s deaf-mute daughter Kattrin. Wordless throughout, her braided hair and waiflike persona almost evoking Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, Hicks takes the longest strides in getting any obvious antiwar message across. She cradles a ravaged infant lovingly, and after she is beaten and raped, her look of desperate sad-eyed wonder is wholly affecting. We need little else to perceive the playwright’s main point.
Director Frace’s open staging, utilizing an ensemble of 12, is generally effective. Actors wait unself-consciously in the wings, enter and deliver their lines, then head over to play musical instruments or simply bide their time for the next entrance. Don Griffiths’ set design, such as it is, lacks convention but bespeaks the appropriate chaos. While the Belcourt Theatre has stalwartly served as a reliable home to PBT for the past two years, it’s not really a friendly playing area for this particular production. There are simply too many right angles to contend with in an old movie house, and experimental theater of this kind cries out for a more experimental venue.
But where Brecht is concerned, nothing is typical or expected, a fact that serves this production well. PBT takes its own stab at an iconic piece of theater, and they do what artists ought: make something special of it.
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