Written on the eve of World War II in 1939, Brecht's Mother Courage offers a powerful reminder of how humanity is worn down by war and what is lost by those who "survive" it. This staging by the Target Margin company makes it live and reverberate with theatrical energy.
The narrative covers more than a decade during the Thirty Years' War of 17th-century Europe. It focuses on the title characters as they follow the soldiers around a battle-defaced Europe, selling them food, drink, clothing and other bric-a-brac (mostly drink) to eke out a living. As jaundiced as Mother Courage's view is of war, and as devoted as she is to her children, she needs it to survive. She pays dearly for this in terms of the lives of her kids.
Target Margin's mission statement posits that theatre achieves truth "most powerfully by (its) divergence from a strict illustration of reality." An artistic ethos well-wed to Brecht's Epic Theatre of alienation, with its intellectually detached study of human behavior.
Director David Herskovits was faithful to the spirit of Brecht's work but innovative in his presentation of it. It's doubtful Brecht would ever have used costumes so obviously clownish-looking as the ones David Zinn designed for this production, but they matched the text in its views of the absurdity of the "need" for war. And Herskovits blocked the action with a magisterial command of visual force and composed scenes that riveted the eye to the stage. Particularly well-achieved was a palpable sense of a trek across land and years with the wagon Mother Courage and her children use as a combination shop/home. Herskovits also has a fine feeling for the sardonic comedy essential to Brecht's overall worldview and is aided in this by the great Ralph Manheim's acidic translation.
The acting ranged from the quite good to the wonderful. Among those in the latter category was Mary Neufeld in the title role. Whether crackling with life or weighted down with a wisdom won through tragedy, Neufeld was an electric presence. Also worth singling out were Will Badgett's wry, slightly sneaky performance as a Machiavellian army cook, Maggie Vandegrift's honestly achieved pathos as Courage's mute daughter (a performance no less moving for its comic gawkiness), David Eye's resourceful turn as a chaplain forced to scavenge with the family, Casey MacDonald's endearing sad-sack quality as one of Courage's sons, and especially Nicole Hamos as an opportunistic woman of the streets. Hamos was in superb voice for both song and dialogue, with a galvanizing earthiness. Her quick wipes from flirtatious vixen to cold-eyed entrepreneur stung with irony.
Lenore Doxsee's lighting choices, from pin spots to general wash to harsh worklights, all had the apposite Brechtian feel of reminding the audience that they are in a THEATRE watching a PLAY rather than seeing real life. The original music by Thomas Cabaniss had a Weillesque feel, but with a distinctive electronic augmentation that gave it a souped-up sound.
Not every moment of the near three-hour production worked on its own terms, and sometimes the comedy could have been just a little less broad. Also, Erika Belsey's set design was a touch too minimalist in its feel (four or five six-foot walls plastered with maps of the world). But Herskovits generally gave a splendid amount of tautness and form to a work that, for all its virtues, can tend to ramble. (Also featuring James Hannaham, Guisseppe Jones, Yuri Skujins; stage manager, Thomas K. Wallerich.)
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly
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