While the Dramat production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” occasionally falters in illustrating capitalism’s auto-cannibalism, it rarely fails to illustrate the auto-cannibalism of ideas that results when a director takes on too many things at once.
There are dozens of moments in this production that are witty, touching — even brilliant — but a satisfying whole never crystallizes from these fragments. The excellent costumes match the period parts of the play but not the sections which are purposely avant-garde. Neither style meshes with the nearly continuous use of Butoh dance, a post-World War II form of Japanese dance, and none of the other elements fit in with cabaret-style jazz music. As an almost three-hour performance draws to a close, the audience is left exhausted rather than galvanized to action, as Brecht would have wanted.
To be fair, there are few tasks harder for a director than putting on a piece of epic theater, a form described by Brecht as one that “turns the spectator into an observer … arouses his capacity for action … and forces him to make decisions,” while also alienating him from feeling any empathy.
Of course, it is almost impossible to meet Brecht’s strict goals, especially in a play like “Mother Courage,” which follows a merchant woman and her steadily dwindling family through the blood and chaos of the Thirty Years War. “Courage” is meant to show that war is an inevitable result of capitalism and that capitalism itself is a state of perpetual war, but even the most politically charged of audience members can become lost unless they are carefully separated from the action by the various devices Brecht and the director supply.
It doesn’t help matters that this direction is the production’s weakest link.
The Butoh dancing that fills the show certainly alienates the audience, but with the exception of a few obvious bits of choreography (people falling to represent dying and such), it hardly illuminates the social situation — at least for an observer unversed in dance theory.
The songs, though enjoyable and uniformly well-sung, are often used as pure culinary entertainment — a phrase Brecht used to describe the superficially entertaining theater of his day — in a way the playwright would never approve.
Director Satya Bhabha ’06 stages them in a properly aloof fashion, raising the house lights and having the actors come to the lip of the stage to deliver cabaret performances complete with microphones, but the original music is too pretty for its own good. As the singers bend the notes to sing beautiful jazz, the lyrics, in which Brecht houses some of his most biting commentary, become virtually indecipherable, and the meaning is lost. Props, like a neon cross descending from on high, provide even more distraction from Brecht’s text.
Other moments of thought provocation abound, but the less that is said about some of the more eccentric devices Bhabha uses to illustrate his thematic points, most notably a toothed statue made of gold foil, the better.
What keeps this production moored in the midst of this chaos is the acting.
The men are relatively undistinguished, with the notable exceptions of Stephano Theodoli-Braschi’s ’06 as the crass Cook and ensemble members Eyad Houssani ’07 and James Darnton ’05, whose Commander with a lust for his men and senile Swedish Colonel, respectively, are two of the comic high points of the evening.
The female leads, on the other hand, are strong across the board. Anna Rebek’s ’07, as vampy prostitute Yvette, exudes a delightful petulance, and as she ages none-too-gracefully, her pronounced waddle is a near-perfect bit of physical comedy.
In the title role as Mother Courage, Julie Lake ’05 is both monster and madonna, refusing to let the audience either hate her or love her. Constantly in command of the stage even as events ricochet out of control, the gesture that embodies her earthy, calculating and bitterly funny performance is not her famous silent scream at the death of one of her sons, but a flick of her tongue at the audience, a move that seems to dare the audience to disapprove of her actions, a dare she repeats a dozen times throughout the night.
If there is a moral hero in Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” that hero is Kattrin, Courage’s mute daughter. Julie Whitesell ’05’s performance as this central figure is without question the highlight of the evening. As Whitesell demonstrates time and again just how extraordinarily expressive her face and body can be, it is difficult to take one’s eyes off her. Her hilarious show-stopping “musical” number alone was worth the price of admission, and the series of tragedies that befall her provide the play’s emotional core.
With such talented performers and such a wealth of technical expertise at the Dramat’s disposal, it is a shame the production as a whole never comes together. As the actors file down the center aisle of the theater in a final anti-war number that attempts to implicate the audience as a part of the evil capitalist system, one cannot help feeling that the moment is unearned.
This production is far from a call to action, and no horror has been unveiled on-stage that one cannot experience infinitely more viscerally by picking up the newspaper, flipping to the international section and starting to read.
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