Arena Stage Mother Courage and Her ChildrenBy Bob Ashby • Feb 12th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Arena Stage: (Info) (Web)
Arena Stage-Fichandler Theatre, Washington DC
Through March 9th
2:40 with intermission
$45-$99 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed February 6th, 2014
The scene greeting theatergoers entering Arena Stage’s Fichandler space for Mother Courage and Her Children is dominated by a gray pit dug out below normal stage level, bringing to mind Wilfred Owen’s “profound dark tunnel, long since scooped through granites which titanic wars had groined.” Bertolt Brecht’s play is set during the 17th Century’s Thirty Years’ War, Europe’s most widespread and devastating conflict before World War I, the causes and course of which were even more byzantine than that “Great War” the centennial of which we mark this year. Brecht wrote in 1939, on the eve of the greater war that outdid all its predecessors. Director Molly Smith’s vision for the show and her coordination of its many elements into a powerful and moving whole do enormous credit to her ability and to her commitment to the project.
Brecht depicts the reality of Thirty Years’ War, and war in general, through the life of an itinerant merchant, Mother Courage (Kathleen Turner), who with her three grown children attempt to scratch out a living selling sundry goods to whatever army happens to be nearby. Turner’s Mother Courage is a force of nature, fiercely protective of her children, insistent on making enough money to survive, indomitable through the ever-changing fortunes of war, never finding a home. What she desires above all, and fights for with all her impressive strength, is to keep her family safe and together. But the war is always stronger.
By turns brave, profane, foolish, angry, demeaning her children even as she loves them, humorous, tender, conniving, and making herself go on even in the face of the darkest grief and the bone-weariness of endless war, Mother Courage is one of the most towering of theatrical roles. In a superb performance, Turner commands the stage and makes clear that she belongs in the company of Diana Rigg, Meryl Streep, Glenda Jackson and others who have made the part their own. Turner’s low, powerful voice and spot-on physicality carry all her character’s varying emotions. Mother Courage being a play with music, Turner is also called upon to sing in a majority of composer/musical supervisor James Sugg’s eleven songs. She acquits herself well, above all in the quiet, desperately sad “Lullaby.”
Speaking of the music, Suggs successfully takes a page from shows like John Doyle’s revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company by having the actors play the instruments that accompany the singers. Besides working musically, the on-stage instrumental ensemble adds to the very theatrical atmosphere of many of the numbers, such as the almost violently sexual tango “Each Night in May,” performed athletically by Meg Gillentine as camp follower Yvette, and the Cook’s (Jack Willis) lively, cynical “Solomon’s Song” (a very close relative of a number in The Threepenny Opera). Adapting the Brechtian tradition of breaking through the “fourth wall” can be a challenge in a presentation in the round, but Willis, rapidly touring the perimeter of the stage, delivers the song directly to the audience in each of the house’s quadrants.
The Cook ultimately develops an affectionate relationship with Mother Courage, and offers her the possibility of stable home away from the war, but attaches a condition she cannot accept. By this time, the Cook had bested his competitor for Mother Courage’s attention, a Chaplain of highly variable ideology and allegiance, played for humor and irony by Rick Foucheux. Building on the fact that the Thirty Years’ War involved religious as well as nationalistic enmities, Foucheux’s Chaplain riffs on the theme of belief as a prop for war (“A God Who Was a Man”).
Each of Mother Courage’s children is a strikingly drawn, memorable character. Kattrin (Erin Weaver) is unable to speak, traumatized by her exposure to war, and tender-hearted to children. She hides under blankets yet sees everything, perhaps more clearly than any other character. In the end, she acts heroically, the play’s only character to do so. Given that she has no spoken lines, Weaver performs entirely with her face and body, and she does so evocatively, leaving no doubt about what her character is thinking and feeling. Eilif (Nicholas Rodriguez), a strapping young man who becomes a lover of war and violence, discovers that what wins him acclaim in combat condemns him during a brief, uncharacteristic outbreak of peace. The rather dim Swiss Cheese (Nehal Joshi) finds that a basic honesty mixed with too-tentative criminality is not a recipe for wartime survival.
Mother Courage is a strong ensemble show, and the ten ensemble members, in addition to their participation in David Leong’s frequent, varied, and well-designed movement pieces, join in most of the musical numbers (as singers, instrumentalists, or both) and play a multitude of soldiers and other smaller roles. They are the key to the circus-like feel of many of the musical scenes that are vital to director Smith’s concept. Their level of energy and attention to the details of their differing characters are consistently high. There are no weak links.
In the midst of the central gray pit, Todd Rosenthal’s set features a large, barren tree stump — the sort of thing one might see in a photograph of the blasted landscape of a World War I no-man’s land — which the actors use as a seat, a chopping block, a platform for speeches, etc. Over the set is a large catwalk (built below the basic theater infrastructure) that actors reach on a long stairway that descends to stage level in various scenes. It is used especially dramatically in the climactic scene in which Kattrin tries to warn townspeople of an impending attack. It is also the location from which, in a nicely unexpected effect, rain falls on a couple of men playing a table game under umbrellas.
The iconic stage piece in any production of this play is Mother Courage’s cart, full of the wares she tries to sell, which she and her children pull from place to place. It is the closest thing they have to a home but, like the characters, it is blown from one place to another by the war. Arena’s well-designed cart is unlike what one sees in many productions: it is a four-wheeled, rather than two-wheeled, vehicle, and it has pneumatic tires. This underlines an important point about the Arena’s physical production. Notwithstanding the script’s references to 17th century events, the production is not placed in the 17th century. Like costume designer’s Joseph P. Salasovich’s military uniforms, the production seems to live somewhere in the 20th century, though the costumes are not specific, for example, to either World War I, World War II, or one of that century’s many other bloody conflicts. The costuming is full of well-conceived and well-executed details, like the red boots (originally Yvette’s) that Kattrin admires in the first act and is revealed to have worn for her courageous act at the end of act 2.
Once the house lights go down, the show begins with a surround-sound thunder of artillery and a flash of bright, audience-level lights, getting the story’s wars underway. Throughout the production, sound designer Roc Lee’s and lighting designer Nancy Schertler’s work create a constant sense of the war just over the horizon or directly affecting the characters. One of the most telling of Schertler’s choices is the use of very quick, abrupt transitions from one light cue to the next, reflecting the unexpected, often arbitrary changes in the war itself and characters’ fortunes. This approach also helps delineate plot scenes from the explicitly theatrical musical numbers (and some of the longer, more didactic speeches) directed squarely to the audience. While bright white light is used frequently, shadow and color provide contrast in some scenes, especially a pale orange light covering the stage in a few scenes that gives the actors’ faces an eerily pallid look.
It is hard for me to watch this show without thinking of the great World War I poets. Like Owen, Brecht is deeply concerned with the pity of war. Like Siegfried Sassoon, he has a keen sense of war’s bitter ironies. Unlike these poets, who served in the war and saw things principally from the soldier’s point of view, Brecht focuses more on the strength and dogged courage, helplessness, and sometimes corruption of civilians in the path of the war, which brings with it the terror that has overrun country after country in the 20th and 21st centuries as well as the 17th. When top-of-the-line acting and spectacularly good technical theater combine to bring Brecht’s vision to life with the power and immediacy of Arena’s production, it isn’t at all hard to move to the foreground of one’s mind the lives of the inevitable counterparts of Mother Courage and her children in places like present-day Syria.
We live in an ironic age.
Trust in our elected officials on Capitol Hill is at 10%, the confidence in our banks and financial systems are at an all-time low, deep suspicions abound about our religious systems and America is in the middle of her own Thirty Years War. Brecht was writing during 1939, after World War I and in the run up to World War II, after he had fled Germany because of his fears of Hitler. Financial systems were crashing worldwide, rampant racism included Jews, blacks, homosexuals, romas (or gypsies), and communists, and the disparity between the rich and the poor was a chasm.
No wonder his play has such resonance for our world today.
Mother Courage and Her Children is the greatest anti-war play ever written. This translation by David Hare is superb — terse, juicy and full of humor. Brecht was interested in waking the audience out of their slumber through the use of opposing viewpoints, contradictions of material, and direct interventions through songs that disrupt the action of the play. He believed in story above all else and developed ideas around epic construction, alienation and opposition that transformed the landscape of theater.
His ideas are essentially modern about dynamically opposing scenes where the audience needs to think and feel and question from moment to moment — from his use of bright blinding light to the creation of a character like Mother Courage — he forces us to examine our politics at the same time our hearts and minds are engaged. He loved tumbling pantomime, music, dance, masks and text next to each other. There is nothing seamless or inevitable about his storytelling and it is actually closer to contemporary film than theater in the 19Thirtys.
Brecht was writing about Europe’s thirty year war — from the 1910s-1940s — through the lens of the Thirty Years War during the 1600s. We see his play through America’s thirty year war, beginning with Iran in 1978 and continuing through the hot wars and the present day.
While the connection to this moment in American history is clear, why now at Arena Stage? We have a focus on American voices and American artists. When a great American artist, like Kathleen Turner, is passionate about an important role, even if it comes from outside the American repertoire, that passion drives the choice. Kathleen and I have been looking for the right project to do together ever since Red Hot Patriot. It was a meaningful moment when I asked her if this was the right moment to take on Mother Courage. I can think of no one more powerful to play this role.
Brecht believed in deep entertainment and thought the ultimate purpose of theater is pleasure. I can’t argue with that.
Photos by Teresa Wood
- Mother Courage: Kathleen Turner
- Kattrin: Erin Weaver
- Eilif/Soldier: Nicholas Rodriguez
- Swiss Cheese: Nehal Joshi
- The Cook: Jack Willis
- The Chaplain: Rick Foucheux
- Yvette: Meg Gillentine
- Soldier/Ensemble: Monalisa Arias
- Peasant Wife/Ensemble/Dance Captain: Lise Bruneau
- Soldier/Ensemble: Jed Feder
- The Voice/Ensemble: Rayanne Gonzales
- Recruiting Officer/Ensemble: Jacobi Howard
- Sergent/Ensemble: Dan Istrate
- Music Coordinator/Ensemble: Nathan Charles Koci
- Commander-in-Chief/Ensemble: James Knoicek
- Man with Patch/Ensemble: Jesse Terrill
- Old Colonel/Ensemble: John Leslie Wolfe
- Molly Smith: Director
- James Sugg: Composer/Music Supervision
- Mark Bly: Dramaturg
- Todd Rosenthal: Set Designer
- David Leong: Movement
- Scott Schreck: Technical Director
- Chuck Fox: Properties Director
- Joseph P. Salasovich: Costume Designer
- Nancy Schertler: Lighting Designer
- Timothy M. Thompson: Sound Designer
- Anne Nesmith: Wig Designer
- Vincent Hill: Assistant Wig Designer
- Susan R. White: Stage Manager
- Kurt Hall: Stage Manager
- Marne Anderson: Assistant Stage Manager
- Christopher V. Lewton: Master Electrician
- T. Tyler Stumpf: Costume Shop Manager
- Lauren Cucarola: Assistant Costume Shop Manager
- Brad Willcuts: Assistant Movement
- Ryan Touhey: Copyist
- Valerie Accetta: Movement Rehearsal Accompanist
- Kristen Harris: Production Assistant
- Leigh Robinette: Senior Stage Management Fellow
- Sean Malarkey, James P. Mulhern III: Show Carpenters
- Marion Hampton Dube, Trevor Riley: Props
- Michael Brown: Light Board Operator
- Nicki Rosecrans: Assistant to the Lighting Designer
- Joshua Ingle, Curtis Jones, Kelsey Swanson, John Walters: Followspot Operators
- Aaron Allen: Sound Engineer
- Brad Porter: Second Audio
- Emily Grace Blackstone, Alice Hawfield: Wardrobe Supervisors
- Dan Iwaniec, Ivania Stack: Costume Crafts Artisans
- Maria Edmundson: Directing Assistant
- Raymond Zilberberg: Assistant to the Director
- Andrew R. Ammerman, Linda A. Baumann, Fruzsina Harsanyi, Vicki J. Hicks, Terry R. Peel, David E. Shiffrin: Board Interns
Disclaimer: Arena Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10142.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.