BWW Reviews: Mother Courage Conquers at Arena Stage; Kathleen Turner Shines Among a Stellar Company
As a theatre major several decades ago, Mother Courage and Her Children was just one of the list of fifty plays I was supposed to have read in my History of Theatre class. This was a landmark play, my professor said, one of the top dramas in the Western world. I recall that I read part of it (along with a summary) and learned about Bertolt Brecht's innovative stagecraft and the early productions in which his actress wife Helene Weigel played Mother Courage.
It was with great anticipation I was able to take in this new mounting in the Fichlander Stage.
I was not disappointed.
Brecht could be proud of this epic production. All the elements come together to shine a stark light on war, capitalism, and the foibles of the human spirit. It makes you think, for sure, but the power of the theatre is great when it also moves your heart.
Smith brought in one of her past collaborators to make essential contributions: movement specialist David Leung. A professor at Virginia Commonwealth University whose work was seen previously in Oklahoma!, Leung created a specific movement vocabulary for this show that helps to illuminate the ravages of war, the relationships, and passage of time. During one passage, coupled with the distinct musical score by James Sugg, a troop of soldiers marches across the stage, almost trapped in time as if to show they will never stop marching and never stop waging war. It is a haunting image. Leung and Smith make potent storytelling partners with Brecht.
Set during the middle years of the 1600s, during the Thirty Years War, Brecht (1898-1956) wrote Mother Courage and Her Children as Adolph Hitler was cranking up his own war machine. Brecht called Hitler "the great bandit" and strongly opposed his rise to power, having seen the effects while living in Denmark. The native German saw the writing on the wall, so to speak, and knew that all of Europe was in danger.
The uneasy juxtaposition of war, profiteering and holding on to virtue makes for the trifecta of themes that rotate throughout Mother Courage and Her Children. If that sounds intellectual, it certainly is, and Brecht would have it no other way. In his style of theatre, honed at the Berliner Ensemble, the audience was in on the theatrical illusions and romantic ideals were pushed aside. He wanted people to think. He did not shy away from politics, either, in his development of what he called Epic Theatre. Brecht's eclectic studies of theatre from around the world also influenced the manner in which he constructed and produced his plays. Illustrative songs, minimal properties and sets, and addressing the audience directly are examples of his conventions; all are on display in the Arena Stage production.
Front and center in Brecht's play, Mother Courage plows her way through the never-ending series of wars, trying to protect her children while chasing soldiers from camp to camp. From her cart, Courage sells everything and anything - a sip of brandy, uniforms, and other sundries - peddling her wares just ahead or behind the next regiment.
Top-billed Kathleen Turner takes the role of Courage and triumphs. Turner takes from her own cart charm, wit, and ingenuity and blends them with sheer force of will; she sells it and we buy it. Her throaty baritone voice never commanded or cajoled with more authority, and, yes, she can sing. Really. The music may have been tailored to her unique range, but it allows her to deliver the stinging verses of Courage's numerous songs with aplomb.
Director Molly Smith did not simply hang the title up with Turner's big name however. Far from it. Washington DC boasts some phenomenal acting talent and Smith found a mother lode of actors to slog through the Thirty Years War with Kathleen Turner. Turner shines but she is in stellar company.
As Courage's three children, Nicholas Rodriguez, Nehal Joshi, and Erin Weaver make a heartbreaking trio. Rodriguez is the strapping, born for the military Eilif, who is recruited to be the ideal soldier for the emperor's war machine. Joshi is the simple and honest Swiss Cheese, Courage's youngest son. And the nearly unrecognizable Erin Weaver is Kattrin, the mute daughter. If you have seen Weaver as Juliet at Folger recently or at Signature last season in Company or The Last Five Years (among her many credits), look closely at her Kattrin. It is a visceral performance in which she uses all her many gifts as an actress, except her lovely voice. Her physical expression and desperation to be someone important in the eyes of Mother Courage is a highlight of a powerful performance.
Sidebar: Molly Smith should look at a new, Arena staging of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and cast Weaver as Maggie with Nicholas Rodriguez as Brick. Turner could be Big Momma and Washington favorite Stacy Keach could be Big Daddy. How's that for a show? End of sidebar.
Courage's children are caught up in the maelstrom of war with her, and none of them are left unscarred. Turner has palpable chemistry with her stage children, making the tragic elements all the more painful to watch, up until the play's final moments.
Needless to say, Courage meets many others on her war torn journey, and what a group. The versatile James Konicek shines as an array of soldiers and officers who weave in and out of the long series of conflicts and outbreaks of peace. Meg Gillentine is striking as the sensual camp tramp Yvette.
Aside from her children, Mother Courage has two men with whom she has a deeper connection and neither of them are fathers to her progeny. The Cook - cynical, brutally honest - and the Chaplain - philosophical, minimally pious - serve as foils, flirts, partners and old friends to Courage. As the Cook, Jack Willis is masterfully forthright. Rick Foucheux is ideally suited to the gentler spirit and hangdog nature of the Chaplain. Willis and Foucheux more than hold their own during their scenes with Turner. It is a pleasure to watch masters at work, and this production is a masterclass.
The spartan setting and properties are byTodd Rosenthal. Costume designer Joseph P. Salasovich provides a panoply of military uniforms that subtly demonstrate the endless string of war even when the trappings change. By contrast, Mother Courage and Kattrin's bedraggled wardrobe places them in their proper place within the fabric of the conflicts.
For the Fichlander staging, Smith chose British playwright David Hare's adaptation of Brecht's text and libretto, which is about as fresh and contemporary as it can be. It crackles, it shocks, it's raw and poetic and it serves Brecht's intentions to a tee.
Brecht's plays are highlighted with songs that comment on the action and attitudes of the characters. The music is by James Sugg and I cannot imagine better settings of the pointed lyrics. From a rousing chorus to a tender ballad, the songs are lyrical asides that roll out with power and purpose. In addition, the actors double as horn players, fiddlers, percussionists and saw players to punctuate the action and provide lively accompaniment for the sometimes raucous, sometimes poignant score. Nathan Koci serves as coordinator of the music and one of the key players throughout the performance.
During an interview last year, Molly Smith talked about the gold standard American musicals, such as My Fair Lady and Oklahoma!, that she has often brought back to life at Arena to much success. I hope that aim continues. Now I am gratified to see how she can take one of the masterpieces of 20th century drama and allow it to speak to us today. It's all well and good to read a play like this for a theatre class or for pleasure. But theatre is collaborative - it takes an engaged audience to really make it work. Mother Courage and Her Children works wonders at Arena Stage and we need thoughtful and powerful productions of plays like this. Washington has it and it needs to be seen.
Mother Courage and Her Children
Through March 9, 2014
Photo Credit: TERESA WOOD for Arena Stage