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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Mother Courage and Her Children

"What they could use around here is a good war. What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization. And when do you get the organization? In a war. Peace is one big waste of equipment." — Sergeant, expanding on this this with "Of course, a war's like any good deal: hard to get going. But when it does get moving, it's a pisser. . ."

"Corruption is our only hope. As long as there's corruption, there'll be merciful judges and even the innocent may get off. — Mother Courage, explaining her optimism that her scheme with Yvette to outsmart the enemy will work.
Mother Courage and Her Children
Olympia Dukakis and her children-- Brooke Parks, Ryan Winkles and Josh Aaron McCabe (photo: Kevin Sprague)
Many consider Bertold Brecht's 1939 epic drama, Mother Courage and Her Children, the definitive, ever relevant play about war and peace, money, religion and mothers. But though it's been internationally produced, including a Broadway run starring Anne Bancroft, and a Public Theater Central Park version starring Meryl Streep, it's never been a sure fire hit, either in terms of staging or casting. That's why, even though Brecht's themes have never resonated more pungently than today, it takes courage to mount Mother Courage. And it takes courage to take on this mountain of a role, especially by an actress who's in her eighth decade.

So, bravo to Shakespeare & Company artistic director Tony Simotes for tackling this challenging play, and to Olympia Dukakis for rustling up the energy to pull that wagon full of goods with which she barters her way through an endless war. (She's played the crusty entrepreneur and survivor previously, the last time twenty years ago at Williamstown Theatre Festival). And bravo, to the 16-member ensemble, many of whom take on multiple roles, and all whom are actors but fearlessly sing the songs that are more than just incidental in this production.

While I've yet to see a Mother Courage. . . that succeeds on all levels, Mr. Simotes has made some choices that work well for this company. Unlike some productions using new translators, he's stuck with the very fine English translation by regular Brecht interpreter Eric Bentley which was also used in my own most memorable encounter with the play back in 1997. That was at a now gone, but much like Shakespeare & Company enterprise. Bentley was on hand, and in fact sat next to me, for the play not only with his translation but with the score he co-composed a score with Darius Milhaud.

Simotes has opted to use the first score written for the play by Paul Dessau, and expand it with additional music by the company's regular composer/sound designer Scott Killian and Ian Sturges Milliken. Whatever the music, it's never the stuff of musical theater but merely an added ironic underscoring of the jarring unrelieved misery. So, if you're not going to be distracted by the beauty of the actors' bursts of song, remember that Brecht never intended this as musical theater. It's the text's sung passages that matter and the singing overall is okay and on key.

While Dukakis is, as usual, a commanding presence, the demanding role seems to be forcing her to pitch her raspy voice to a pitch that's likely to leave her with severely strained vocal chords before the end of the run. She's actually at her most compelling in the non-verbal scenes that epitomize the tragedy of a woman whose willingness to profit from war goes counter to her determination to keep her children safe. Dukakis needs no words to project the agony of seeing each of her children die. She may be the epitome of a war profiteer but watching in those moments is to watch a woman whose whole purpose has always been to protect those children.

Mother Courage and Her Children
Paula Langton as Yvette and Apollo Dukakis as the Chaplain (Photo by Enrico Spada)
Though the full thirty years of the 17th Century war Brecht used as his means to express his outrage at the 1939 world situation, have been smartly reduced to a dozen years (1624-1636, instead of 1618 to 1648), the chronicle of the profit minded entrepreneur and passionate mother is still slow and painful to watch, even at under two and a half hours. But for all the operatic heaviness of this saga, there are plenty of comic observations and typical of Shakespeare & Company productions, Simotes has ratcheted up all possibilities to add some of the clowning and fun that the company's followers have come to expect.

Helping to keep slow spots to a minimum are the performances of John Douglas Thompasn as a womanizing cook, Apollo Dukakis (Olympia's brother) as the Chaplain who is conveniently Protestant or Catholic depending on the way the war is going, and Paula Langton as Yvette, a Cindy Lauper-like prostitute who's also the best singer.

Mother Courage and Her Children
John Douglas Thompson as The Cook (photo: Kevin Sprague)
Thompson, who's become a much lauded player at Shakespeare & Company (Othello & Satchmo ), as well as in New York where he'll be playing a major role in the Broadway stage version of John Grisham's A Time to Kill may seem underused in the first act. But ignites the stage in the second act, though Dukakis's age makes even the hint of a libidinous situation more amusing than possible.

The primary prop here, as in every production ever staged, is th wagon that serves as the intrepid entrepreneur's business and living quarters. The essentially bare bones staging is also typical of most plays I've seen on this company's main stage, as is the frequent use of the aisles for noisy, unexpected entrances and exits. But there's nothing bare bones about Arthur Oliver's costumes which support the sense of ruined lives with their subtle palette. Also commendable are Matthew E. Adleson's mood enhancing lighting and Barbara Allen's choreography.

If this Mother Courage and Her Children seems inordinately depressing, perhaps we have to blame it on the times we live in.

Links to other Mother Courage and Her Children Productions reviewed at Curtainup:
London- 2000
Classical Theater of Harlem-2004
Public in Central Park -2006

Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht
English version by Eric Bentley
Directed by Tony Simotes
Music: Score by Paul Dessau, with additional music by Scott Killian and Ian Sturges Milliken Cast: Olympia Dukakis (Mother Courage), Apollo
Dukakis (Chaplain), John Douglas Thompson (Cook); with Mark Bedard (Recruiting Officer/Soldier), Charls Sedgwick Hall (Sergeant/Hoary Old Colonel/Soldier), Edgar Landa (Patch/One-Eyed Sergeant/Regimental Clerk/Lieutenant), Paula Langton (Yvette Pottier), Josh Aaron McCabe (Ellif/Ensemble), Nafeesa Monroe (Clerk/Young Woman/Peasant Woman), Brooke Parks (Katrin), Renee Margaret Speltz (Old Peasant Woman/Old Woman),Douglas Seldin (Ordnance Officer/Another Sergeant/Soldier), , Ryan Winkles (Swiss Cheese).
Set Designer: Patrick Brennan
Costume Designer: Arthur Oliver
Lighting Designer: Matthew E. Adelson
Composer/Sound Designer: Scott Killian
Choreographer: Barbara Allen
Fight Choreographer: Tony Simotes
Stage Manager: Diane Healy
The Band: Bark Bedard, Nareesa Monroe, Douglas Seldin, Eri Sirakian, Andy Talen, Ryan Winkles
Band: Mark Bedard, Nafeesa Monroe, Douglas Seldin, Eric Sirakian, Andy Talen, Ryan Winkles From 7/26/13; opening 8/02/13; closing 8/25/13
Tina Packer Playhouse, Shakespeare & Co in Lenox, Mass.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at August 2nd press opening
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