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A CurtainUp Review
Mother Courage And Her Children
By Elyse Sommer
Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children chronicles the Thirty Years War through the story of a canteen-woman, Anna Fierling nicknamed Mother Courage. Her do-or-die pragmatism posits philosophical questions about the little person's struggle to survive in a world gone mad and the price of that survival. Her philosophy is summed up in the refrain that concludes the prologue ands several of the accompanying songs: "And though you may not long survive/Get out of bed and look alive!"
Brecht wrote the play in the heat of the emotions packed into his baggage as an exile from Nazi Germany. He wanted the distance of the seventeenth century war to open the eyes of audiences throughout Europe's great cities to the evil and destruction he so correctly foresaw. Such productions never materialized and while Mother Courage was eventually produced, published and widely praised, it never achieved success at the box office. This includes a 1963 Broadway production starring Anne Bancroft and directed by Jerome Robbins, with lyrics and translation by Eric Bentley and music by Paul Dessau. Richard Schechner, who has just given us a startlingly different Three Sisters ( CurtainUp Review) engendered the longest run with an off-Broadway audience-involving, happening type production.
Now, one of New York's few true repertory companies, the Jean Cocteau, has retrieved a rare treasure from the morgue of unproduced works and staged the heretofore unseen adaption of Mother Courage and Her Children by translator-playwright-critic-teacher-editor Eric Bentley and composer Darius Milhaud. The Milhaud score while not show tune melodic is appealing and accessible, as are the lyrics and the overall text. Yet it arrives too late to speculate whether this adaptation would have changed the course of the Broadway production since today's theater economy works against the success of any tragi-drama with a cast of over a dozen characters plus musicians --and make no mistake about it, this is a play with music and not a musical. That's why the Cocteau Repertory deserves special commendation for being the little engine that could. They've not only given theater goers a chance to see this theatrical rarity, but given it a full-featured production which, given the size and configuration of the stage, is truly daunting.
Of course, whether as a new adaptation or in its original format or translation, no play is worth a revival, unless it continues to speak to its audience. While Brecht wrote Mother Courage in reaction to the evil of the Nazi era and in anticipation of a war which would not only devastate Europe but create new heroes and profiteers, it is as relevant today as then. Even without a map of the world still full of markers to indicate bloody conflicts, we continue to live with the philosophical issues in everyday, political and business life. And so the story of Mother Courage continues to engage our emotions and our mind. Given a skillful portrayal she will remain ambiguously admirable and unsympathetic so that the audience is made aware that the choices she makes along her endless circular trek of survival doom her children as much as the circumstances created by those who control the larger world around her.
One of the Cocteau's most venerable actors, Elise Stone, brings the right mix of passionately protective mother, homespun philosopher, capitulator and finally, too-shrewd entrepreneur, to the leading role. The scene of her capitulation, her stony face as she pretends not to recognize the corpse of her son, the way she embraces her deaf daughter are all heart wrenchers.
The thirteen other members of the troop play 22 parts, with some more outstanding than others. Harris Berlinsky as the cook, Will Leckie as Chaplin, and Amy Fitts as Yvette are standouts.
The biggest problem for all the performers are the songs. When casting a musical, a director can dip into a large pool of actors with musical backgrounds. Actors who don't usually sing have brought off a singing roles by sheer virtue of their acting talent and personalities, but this is generally a case of one non-singing performer in an otherwise musically adept cast. In this production, Director Robert Hupp has had to deal with a cast of non-singing actors. As previously stated, this is a play with music and not a musical. Therefore, the fact that you're not going to be distracted by the beauty of the singing voices can be said to work in favor of the lyrics. It's the cleverness of the words that sticks to the mind. The singing (by Elise Stone and Amy Fitts) is at best okay, or at least on key (though, alas, not always). In a perfect world, the vocal part of the score would be as rich and powerful as the strictly instrumental elements.
Aside from the voice problems, the company has worked wonders in fitting the action of the play's twelve scenes to the Bouwerie Lane's small, raked stage. Scenic Designer Robert Klingelhoffer has created a very serviceable donut-shaped platform for the wagon which Courage pushes around and around in her endless travels, with a raised platform at the rear to accommodate the four musicians (reduced from the fourteen called for in the original score). In addition to the stage itself, the theater's center and side passageways are used for entrances and exits which at times makes things seem a bit too busy and stagey but for the most part works well. Brian Aldous' lighting is also appropriate and Margaret A. McKowen's variations-in-red costumes are better than good.
Matinees at the Cocteau Repertory are usually followed by a discussion with the members of the company. This discussion at the performance we attended proved to be special since the spry, ever-witty 80-year-old Eric Bentley was in attendance and graciously joined the actors and director to field questions form the audience. And since we consider audience reaction as important as our own, we note that this particular house seemed enthusiastic, and from their questions, both stirred and challenged as Brecht intended.