‘Mother Courage’ Honors Brecht

Balmore Ruano/New University

There were no velvety curtains, no gilded proscenium arch or plush seats. The house lights didn’t soften and fade to glimmering darkness. The warm voice of the pre-show announcement telling you to turn off your phones stayed silent. In fact, every expectation a person has walking into a play wasn’t just absent — “Mother Courage and Her Children” and its stage was a bona fide funeral pyre upon which convention smoldered.

Walking into the XMPL Theatre (Experimental Media Performance Lab) in the Contemporary Arts Center, audience members found their seats amongst folding chairs crowded around tables lining three sides of the playing space. Fluorescent lights hung over the tables, which are set up conference style (even down to the pitchers of water and plastic cups at each table).

If the audience forgot that this was a Bertolt Brecht play, they certainly remembered the second they rounded the corner and entered the disorderly world of unfinished structures, exposed fixtures and projection screens displaying the design team’s research images.

The play began with Siobhan Doherty, accompanied by Sean Harrigan (who plays both the General and the Farmer), welcoming the audience to a “symposium on strategies for maintaining healthy family relationships during wartime.” Ironically, Doherty played Kattrin, Mother Courage’s mute daughter.

Framed as a special presentation, “Mother Courage” is an unsentimental picture of a nomadic family. War profiteer Anna Fierling (Anika Solveig) and her children, Eilif (Conor Bond), Swiss Cheese (Jacob Dresch) and the mute Kattrin follow troops across Europe. Each scene has a year or so in between it and the next, making it impossible to connect emotionally by de-emphasizing the importance of individual characters and their journeys. It was written originally as a criticism of war in Europe after Germany invaded Poland, but it is set during the Thirty Years’ War.

Though the scene descriptions scrawled across dry-erase boards denoted that “Mother Courage” takes place between 1624 and 1636, there wasn’t even the slightest hint of period piece mentality. By not setting the play during the rise of Nazi Germany, Brecht built a timeless piece about war and the people who profit from it. This production could easily be about 21st century cultural upheaval, the tumultuous climate of our own government, the war in Iraq or countless foreign uprisings.

While being overwhelmed by projections, sounds, musical numbers, gun shots, a scene playing out on stage, characters discussing politics from inside the wagon and production staff members moving around backstage, the audience was over-stimulated to a point of near shutdown.

It’s impossible to see everything at once. You feel distanced from the action by the overhead view of the stage projected behind the actors on one screen and footage of a dusty road or waving flag on the other screens. You are in the control room of a police state or, perhaps even more apt, sitting on your couch watching television while you play Words with Friends on your iPhone and glance through a newsfeed on your laptop. You are surrounded by data and you can choose which to clue in to if any, but what do we actually gain from the overload?

Epic theatre is, by genre, a generally unpleasant experience. The movement was developed to alienate and discomfort audiences, to make them think. In a 1936 essay entitled “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction,” Brecht outlined how technological progress and the growth of the cinematic arts made Epic theatre possible by presenting new media and conventions for storytelling. In the XMPL Theatre, full of unseen cameras in the catwalks and around the set, projection screens hanging overhead, pre-existing footage cued and waiting, and the advances of 21st century theatre production, Brecht would be proud.

Though the production tips its hat to him, it doesn’t leave him unchallenged. It seems that director Ryanna Larantonda has a few important disagreements to address. For one, the actors were instructed not to “act Brechtian” — meaning they weren’t told to be both their character and themselves at once. Instead, the cast approached their characters naturalistically. Epic theatre, after all, is a reaction against naturalism, a style that Brecht believed encourages escapism rather than mental rigor. The cast and their director prove Brecht wrong.

Throughout the play, we saw Solveig’s Mother Courage slowly disintegrate, her confidence and strength faltering as the war goes on, but she was no classic tragic figure. Mother Courage is not meant to be a fallen hero. She puts her business, which relies on the horrors of continuous war, before morals. Yet, her love and salty compassion shone through.  Solveig was incredible in the role, summoning awe-inspiring power, strength and shrewdness that was aptly sustained, making her moments of softness and compassion land with great significance.

Supporting her brilliantly, the actors who played Mother Courage’s sons were cogs in the political, militaristic machine of the outer world, but showed beautiful heart-rending reverence to their mother. Bond’s Eilif was full of bravado when speaking about his horrifying cruelty, but every part of him, down to his eyes, softened when in her presence. Dresch garnered a lot of laughs as the simple-minded Swiss Cheese, but even more notable was the pathos he could demand with a pronounced tremor. Doherty’s Kattrin was sweet, and watching her silent suffering at the hands of her mother’s lifestyle was perhaps the only point of sympathy the audience could consistently anchor to.

Where this production excelled was the ambitious and cohesive concept. Placing the audience as attendees of a conference both let us know that we were walking into political discourse and forced us to engage actively. The director’s note says that this ploy was chosen to make us examine the conference room — “a place where so many of our modern day problems are intellectually presented and ‘solved.’” Where Brecht thought that Epic theatre could be a space to examine problems and come up with solutions, this production begged to ask us what good it is to sit and ponder amidst our technology and hyperactive attention spans. After all, aren’t we silly capitalists just playing Angry Birds on the field of human suffering?

While staying true to Brechtian agitprop theatre by acting as a vehicle for discourse, this production came off as a love song to modern theatre, as pioneered by good ole Bertolt. Rather than feeling like a tired political rant, every element of “Mother Courage” felt like a living and breathing homage — this was not just a staging of an old play, this was a conversation with the dramatist. Though I think he’d have some counter-arguments for Larantonda and her company, it seemed to me that the spirit of Brecht was honored beautifully.

Rating: 5 out of 5