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A CurtainUp Review
Mother Courage and Her Children
By Charles Wright
Brian Kulick, outgoing Artistic Director of the Classic Stage Company (CSC) and director of that troupe's current production of Mother Courage, has assembled a cast of 10, ready, willing, and able to handle the acting challenges of Brecht's "Epic Theater" and the vocal demands of John Willett's idiomatic 1980 translation. At many points, the actors demonstrate capacity for well-calibrated ensemble work but, by and large, their efforts are thwarted.
At the end of December, when this production was already being seen by preview audiences, Tonya Pinkins resigned from the role of Mother Courage. Kecia Lewis, hurriedly recruited for the title part, is not yet in command of all her lines; but she is offering a resolute sketch of the formidable Mother Courage she's capable of creating.
For approximately half the performance under review (maybe a bit less), Ms. Lewis carried a script disguised as an accounts ledger. When not on book, she called on the prompter three times (or, perhaps, four), doing so in a no-nonsense, thoroughly professional manner. In the scenes she played with book in hand, Ms. Lewis gave a convincing reading of the text, but it was undeniably a reading and not a thoroughgoing characterization. The question, unanswerable at present, is: how deep and complex would her Mother Courage be with time to master the script and rehearse it?
Ms. Lewis is at her best in the songs Brecht wrote for his protagonist. In this production, the playwright's verses are set to new, intriguing melodies by Duncan Sheik. Ms. Lewis' voice is voluptuous and pleasing, with impressive range and volume. She handles Sheik's musical demands with distinction and lends dramatic flair to Brecht's lyrics. Her fierce, high-voltage rendition of "The Song of the Grand Capitulation" allays any doubts about her potential as a top-flight Mother Courage.
Brecht didn't want his plays to be touching, and he formulated the much-discussed "alienation effect" to discourage audiences from becoming emotionally absorbed at the expense of intellectual engagement. In Mother Courage his alienating devices include an episodic structure of choppy scenes that afford theatrical snapshots rather than narrative continuity; didactic songs that bring the dramatic action to a halt; and a setting — various combat sites in the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) — that's not only distant but unfamiliar, even obscure, to most contemporary playgoers.
All those alienating techniques notwithstanding, the supporting players of this production bring considerable pathos to the proceedings. Mirirai Sithole is Mother Courage's sad, lonely daughter Kattrin, damaged by growing up at the edge of battlefields and rendered mute by something in her past (presumably, rape or other abusive treatment). Ms. Sithole's wordless performance is detailed but subtle; her sighs, grunts, and fast-moving glances communicate as much as her fellow actors convey with Brecht's dialogue. Her work is so compelling that it's almost impossible to look away as she experiments, yearningly but clumsily, with a pair of red high-heeled shoes that a whore has temporarily abandoned — and it's almost too painful to watch as the voiceless Kattrin sacrifices her life, banging a drum on a housetop to warn sleeping villagers of maraudering soldiers.
As the Chaplain who incongruously joins Mother Courage's retinue, Michael Potts captures the disparities in the character and makes them fit together so convincingly that this ignoble figure becomes sympathetic. The same may be said of Kevin Mambo as the horny, jocular Cook who abandons Mother Courage when she won't abandon the vulnerable Kattrin.
Zensi Williams provides welcome leavening in this dense theatrical concoction. As the shameless camp follower Yvette (owner of the red shoes), Ms. Williams shifts seamlessly from lugubrious drama to antic comedy and the Brechtian cabaret of her musical number, "The Song of Fraternization."
The last major New York revival of Mother Courage was George C. Wolfe's Public Theater production in Central Park a decade ago. Wolfe's cast, headed by Meryl Streep, pursued a variety of acting styles and the resulting discordance made the production odd and unsatisfying. Kulick's version achieves a unity of style and purpose among its actors, and that's the chief virtue of what's on view at CSC.
Kulick directs Mother Courage from a version of Willett's Penguin Classics translation that is noticeably but judiciously streamlined. He has transferred the action from the Thirty Years War to present-day Congo, a change which has the potential of undercutting Brecht's anti-pathos policy by associating the play's events with latter-day suffering chronicled in the daily press. But Brechtian purists need have no anxiety in that regard: except for contemporary-looking military costumes by Toni-Leslie James and the jeep that scenic designer Tony Straiges has substituted for Mother Courage's horseless wagon, there's little, if anything here to tie the action to a specific place or bring it into the 21st century. Kulik's production has an alienating effect that Brecht couldn't foresee: a leading performer forced by circumstances to rely on a script and call out for prompts. What could be more distancing for an audience than that?