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A CurtainUp Review
by Brad Bradley
The Jean Cocteau Repertory, which has been devoted to the classics over its remarkable 35-year history at the small Bouwerie Lane Theatre, successfully produced Eric Bentley's translation only eight years ago. The company decision to revisit the work connects to its acquisition of a hitherto unstaged translation by Marc Blitzstein who previously had famously rendered Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera into a major English language success a quarter century after it had died a largely unlamented death on Broadway. Blitzstein's work on Mother Courage is vivid, possibly even better in creating an internationally meaningful vernacular than does his earlier service to The Threepenny Opera. But even with its dozen songs, Mother Courage contains neither the energy nor the escapism of the aforementioned musical; even considered as a drama, unfortunately neither Blitzstein's faithful script nor David Fuller's direction directly faces the challenges of making the overlong and repetitive text sufficiently come to stage life.
This translation was created for an aborted 1958 production to be directed by Orson Welles, who no doubt would have shaped, theatricalized, and certainly trimmed the material -- perhaps radically, considering his assertive and memorable adaptations of work for both stage and screen (e.g., Moby Dick, The Magnificent Ambersons, Othello). Also, Welles' casting of Geraldine Fitzgerald in the title role likely would have given the material its needed rugged and commanding center. Fitzgerald, not initially known as a singer, nevertheless dedicated a major portion of her stage career to gritty musical material, and would have matched Brecht's intention of using music as a caustic comment on the action, rather than as a plot-forwarding element, as in much modern musical theater.
The tiny, spartan Cocteau stage has been arranged to suggest a weary but lively music hall environment, with marquee type lights blazing above the playing space at the start to proclaim the title, and even mock-footlights at the stage's edge. Also, as in music hall tradition, the performers regularly break through the fourth wall and often enter and exit through the audience, thereby implying that both rattling and entertaining the audience are higher priorities than telling a story or giving the patrons an escape into the characters' lives, miserable as they are tramping through the Thirty Years' War of a half-millennium ago.
Yet the music of Paul Dessau is not written in a music hall tradition, and certainly does not mean to be as engaging as that employed by Kurt Weill in his several earlier collaborations with Brecht. While Weill's music written for the Brecht collaborations is often memorable and almost always pleasant and entertaining, Dessau's songs mostly underscore Brecht's already overstated and often barking despair about the bad situation that humankind has made for itself, and the dirge-like quality in many of them drag the show more. The production's artificial music-hall illusion, while understandably abandoned after its misleadingly festive beginning, mysteriously and unnecessarily returns in a somber curtain call.
Any director of this play, or in fact of most (non-Weill) Brecht works that employ songs, has a substantial challenge in holding the audience's attention with the uneasy mix of song and script. The speeches that remove a character from a scene to speak directly to the audience present another challenge, one which this cast accomplishes quite well. Yet the product at hand becomes an unnecessarily long three hours, including a particularly tiring first act and two intermissions. Scene changes often stop the action, and dialogue exchanges frequently have exasperating waits between speeches. With all the life-changing misery facing the indomitable Anna Fierling and her three children in the interminable war, the production almost never presents these characters' behavior with any sense of urgency.
The nine cast members mostly play multiple roles, a device consistent with Brecht's expressionistic style. Yet using such a small ensemble really limits the ability to convey the epic-like scope implied in the writing.
Standing out in a valiant cast, Lynn Marie Macy is especially effective as both a poor man's prostitute and a peasant. Two of her colleagues also are notable in their strong stage presence, Seth Duerr as The Cook and Angus Hepburn as The Chaplain. Duerr, the only performer who really illuminates the irony in Brecht's script, unfortunately in one key scene has been directed towards intense naturalism, great for O'Neill, but an anathema to Brecht. Mr. Hepburn's strong voice and training are apparent, but his classically intoned speech often goes so far to draw attention to itself in contrast with the largely vulgar tones of the material.
In the title role, Lorinda Lisitza seems to see her character primarily as a downtrodden Everywoman, yet provides a minimum of maternal manner, nary a spark of humor or irony and little fire in the belly either, instead coming across more as a gossipy harpy and a woman of uncertain anxiety than the script ever suggests. In Act II, both she and her wagon belatedly get moving, but such energy should have been strongly apparent from Act I. Her children, often included in the play's title, here are lost in their onstage impact, the mute daughter Kattrin particularly reduced to near meaninglessness.
Some day the Blitzstein script may have an impact which will enhance the resonance of Mother Courage and Her Children (the more common title), but it probably will need the theatrical muscle and imagination of a new age Orson Welles to reach a significant audience.
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Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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>6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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