Mother Courage and Her Children
by Bertolt Brecht
UNB Theatre / English 2170
Even more than most of Bertolt Brecht's plays, perhaps, Mother Courage and Her Children has a paradox or irony at its center. Its central events are heartrending, overdone and emotional, sentimental even: a mother loses all three of her children, and her own chances for a decent life, in violent and even sadistic ways, and continues staggering onward, surviving by her wits and her sheer will. And yet at the same time, famously, Brecht wanted his plays to be performed in such a way that we wouldn't be sucked in to identifying with the characters, wrote them so that in their very structure they continually remind the audience that these are just actors and this is just a story. With their rush of fragmentary scenes, often framed by explicit narration, and their cartoonish and cynical violence and cruelty and suffering, his plays tend to be the sort of challenge that any director relishes.
Len Falkenstein is apparently no exception, and the production of Mother Courage he has put together with his English 2170 class is in concept an imaginative and exciting take on the play. As is becoming customary, Falkenstein and his designer, Mike Johnston, have found a way to take the recalcitrant Memorial Hall barn and convert it into an interesting and powerful theatrical space, by essentially ignoring its conventional shape and splashing the acting space down through the center of the hall, leaving the audience on either side. In this case a long, meandering road leads down from apron of the stage to the back corner of the house (to get to the seats on that side of the house the audience have to pick their way across the road and among the debris of war and sticks of wood). Up on the stage proper is a wonderful, decrepit covered wagon -- Mother Courage's cart -- and against the back wall, at the other end of the road, is a mockup stone house reaching up to the balcony (closed for this production). The acting company uses all this space in the fluid way we've come to expect of their productions, with soldiers marching up and down the road, Mother Courage's cart effortfully moving back and forth for various scenes, and the cast sometimes parked along the sides of the road, occasionally punctuating the action with various percussion instruments, chorally announcing scenes (and dying as they do so to set the scene as the aftermath of war).
One of the most impressive facets of this production is the lighting design. A tasteful infusion of theatrical fog makes the light direction -- and the direction of the lighting -- extremely visible; the colors are brazen, cold and often scary, and overhead spotlights swivel around on cue to highlight characters as they sing or become central. I'm not sure Brecht would have chosen to do all this -- he might have argued that the space and the bodies should be enough. Still, it all seems to me very Brechtian in the way it heightens the artificiality of the narrative, reminding us (as the spotlight sprays across the crowd and comes to rest on Mother Courage, all set to sing the Song of the Capitulation) that, after all, this is a show, a story: don't get involved.
It's also often understood that Brecht didn't want his actors to embody and express emotions in the way that, for instance, the movies typically ask them to. Invitations to tears when the actors are in tears, to compassion for pain and identification with striving and failure, are seen to be compromises with a kind of sentimentality that Brecht wanted nothing to do with. He prefers us to understand the complex realism behind a line like "Whenever there are great virtues, it's a sign something's wrong." This poses choices: when Mother Courage has to deny recognizing the body of her son, knowing that her denial will get him thrown in a ditch; when she has to cradle her ruined and now dead daughter in her lap, she can either express her agony or she can bear it with stoicism. Falkenstein and the young actors in his English 2170 course choose, almost invariably, the latter.
Theoretically, I can understand the choice, and yet, as a member of the audience, I missed the passion that I think is implicit in Brecht's fable. When Cherie Nickerson, as Mother Courage, walks away from the body of the heroic Kattrin, leaving the peasants to bury her, with the simple line, "here's money for the expenses," it seemed to me that what we felt was not so much suppressed passion as lack of it; and this seemed to me to typify much of the production. The interpretations of most of the major characters -- Tyler Crawford as Swiss Cheese, the prophetically named second son who winds up full of holes because he tries too hard to do his duty; Casey Danaher as the older son, who falls in love with the idea of the army and winds up being killed because he doesn't know how to stop being a bloodthirsty soldier when peace breaks out; Seann Murray as the cynical and raffish chaplain, Zach Leblanc as the cook whose crass calculus deletes Mother Courage's daughter from the equation and loses out altogether -- all reflected choices, it seemed, to play their roles with a kind of reserved, stoic calm that may have been intended to suggest reserves of passion under the surface, but which unfortunately didn't convey that suppression very well. Zita Nyarady, in the powerful role of the mute, desperate daughter, did regularly convey some of that powerful emotion -- running back and forth, unable to explain, gesticulating and panicked. And yet even her strongest moment -- when she has climbed up to the roof of a building, pulling the ladder up after her, and is beating a drum to try to warn the village of the soldiers sneaking in to massacre the inhabitants -- was somehow missing the kind of frantic, air-raid-siren intensity the scene potentially holds, as she continues to beat the drum while the soldiers, themselves now panicked, try to stop her, to keep her from waking the village. In the event, her act seemed more stolid than desperate, hesitant and deliberate rather than driven by adrenalin, and the soldiers seemed to have all the time in the world to get organized to shoot her from her perch, just too late to prevent her from raising the alarm.
Much in this production focused on the general anti-war message of Brecht's play, beginning with the wonderful solo voice recording of "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" which, the night I attended, brought the house down to an attentive and focused silence well ahead of the actual beginning of the action -- and which was supported, as the play began, with a verse of Buffy Ste-Marie's "Universal Soldier":
He's five foot two, and he's six foot four,Clearly we have lots of reasons to think about the consequences for the bystanders (not to mention the combatants) of the too-easy decisions to go to war, and to contemplate with the clear-sighted realism Brecht embodied for us the slimy hollowness of the slogans that pitted Protestants against Catholics in the Thirty Years' War, and which have worked so consistently well ever since. And we have lots of reasons to be grateful for this production, even as we wish, perhaps, it had embodied its message with more passion.
He fights with missiles and with spears,
He's all of thirty-one and he's only seventeen,
He's been a soldier for a thousand years.