Many factors combine to bring success to a theatre production. Conversely, any number of these factors may contribute to a dull, if not distressing, production. First, the script establishes the lines and directions for what might occur on stage. Then the director’s decisions about who is in the cast and how to how to organize the production begin to give shape to the playwright’s ideas. The creative team generates the visual elements of the play, such as the set, costumes, lighting, sound effects, movement and choreography for the actors. Finally, the actors take their lines and develop their characters to understand the reason for each line to be spoken. While I usually try to find some element to emphasize in my reviews that brings out what the production did well, Arena Stage’s rendition of Mother Courage and Her Children went down like medicine that is supposed to be good for you.
No production of Mother Courage can escape that Bertolt Brecht wrote it, as the Nazis spread the shadow of WWII into Eastern Europe in the late 1930. Mother Courage is inherently about the absurdity and horror of war, and the deprived nature of people on all sides of the conflict. Thus, in contrast to feel-good Depression era movies and stage shows, Mother Courage is “serious” drama… like that medicine, again.
During this time period, serious drama used shock-value tactics to elicit reactions from the audience. We are pretty jaded 70 years later, so not much shocks us any more. But, back then having a woman capitalizing on war, soldiers brutalizing each other or running from duty, and a war drama breaking into bleak songs and lively band tunes intended to keep the audience uncomfortable.
Moreover, Brecht is known for taking a long time to develop his characters and beat his point to a pulp. Did I say long. I meant LOOOOOOOOOOOONG. With a running time of two and half-hours, the show taxes one with the repetition the ideas of the first scene through at least 10 more (I lost count after that). This is not Hamlet, which has about the same dismal view of war and power.
When I was first studying theatre, I recall viewing a PBS production of Bretch’s play, The Life of Galileo. The image that I recall of that production was the actor portraying Galileo, framed only with his face, looking straight at the camera, reciting his lines. My professor explained that Brecht wrote presentational theatre.
Briefly, representational theatre is the style in which the set, costumes, and acting style represent a specific place, time, and series of interactions on stage. We the audience are behind the fourth wall, watching this occur, but distanced by that wall. Presentational theatre uses techniques that constantly remind one that he or she in a theatre. The stage often is sparsely furnished, or arranged in a non-naturalistic manner. Costumes may or may not set the time, and often are intended to say, “He is a solider”, “She is a peasant”, “He is a priest”, “She is a prostitute”… Lighting may be used to isolate one character to focus our attention, or use colors to set the mood for a scene. Movements, blocking of actors, and choreography of dances may be used to accelerate or slow time, and again, bring our attention to the meaning behind the lines. Finally, in presentational theatre characters often talk to the audience, for we are the intended recipients of the spoken words, rather than other characters on stage.
This brings us to the director’s decisions about about how to present the script. The director for this production, selected Arena Stage’s Fichlander stage, which is in the round (or actually square). This offers both obstacles and opportunities for a Brecht play. Having audiences on all sides makes talking directly to the audience difficult. The actor cannot walk up to the front of the stage, or turn to the audience, to say lines. Rather, no matter which way the actor faces, a portion of the audience sees her back. Of course, this dilemma occurs with any theatre-in-the-round staging. Typically, Arena Stage directors block the actor at one side or corner of the stage, facing the opposite way. Those seeing the back can hear the lines better, and those facing can see the facial expressions.
However, this production’s director did not have the actors address the audience at all. While they were clustered in group of three to five talking, they should have been walking off the set and into the audience to bring us into the play. Avoiding this presentational technique, and using representational groupings of actors talking to each other let us sit back, bored and disengaged, as the characters went about manipulating each other or generally being nasty.
With audience members on all sides of the stage, the presentational concept that we in the audience are watching each other is unavoidable. Representational walls of the set have to be left out. The stage crew did give us as bleak a set as possible. Four ramped entrances (for Mother Courage’s cart) descended on a sunken platform with nothing other than a cut down stump of a tree, and elevated side embankments near the edge of the stage (for actors to stand, sit, and lounge on). Every part of the set is painted neutral grey. Before the play began, seeing this setting, I pondered the position of the stage, which was lower than usual. Did this put us in the position of looking down on war? Or were we the audience of a sports arena, as if war were a spectator event? Or did it compensate for the height of Mother Courage’s cart, on which she or other characters often stood, so we would not be looking “up” at them?
Mother Courage has essentially four groups of characters on stage: Mother Courage, her children and the entourage that follows her about, soldiers in various armies, and her cart. Yes, the cart is as much a character in this play at the actors. To that effect, it should make a statement of presence. It is their home, their shop, their cafe, their bank, their pawn shop, and the only object of affection that Mother Courage has at the end of the play. However, the cart that Arena Stage presented looked like something I might haul behind my tractor and purchase at the Tractor Supply Company store. It had a flat bed, flat seat up front, flat short walls, horse harness, and pneumatic tires, which were probably a practicality to be able to actually roll the cart down and up the ramps. I did not feel transported to the time of the play (early 17th century, during the 30 Years War), but spent some of the afternoon thinking about the manure that I wanted to haul to our garden this Spring…. (any time your mind wanders during a play to topics unrelated to the stage, the production has missed a cue). But, this is not Mother Courage and Her Cart.
Representational plays have to select a specific time period, then create the stage as accurately at possible to that time period. Presentational plays can play with the symbolism and connection with the audience by contrasting the time frames. For instance, performing Shakespeare plays in modern dress (or Victorian ear, or Downton Abby-esque) is used to bring contemporary ideas to classic scripts. In Mother Courage, the opening line is a soldier announcing the scene number and date, in this case 1624, about eight years into the 30 Years War. Opening each subsequent scene, someone gives the scene number, location, and time that has passed since the last scene. Thus, the director can decide whether to make the stage look like the 17th century, or otherwise. In this production, the director used generic 20th century dress, which could have been anywhere from WWI to the Korean War eras. If she were wanting to bring war to us, disregarding the lines of the script which make little sense set in the 20th century (e.g. about Catholics and Lutherans battling, raping, and looting), she should have brought us to Afghanistan or Iraq at least. The sound crew surrounded us with shells bursting, glass breaking, and walls crumbling. We should have heard predator drones and RPG whizzing by us. The soldiers should have been baring high-tech devices and weapons. Rather, in the closing scene, as two columns of soldiers crossed the stage in slow motion, carrying packs with collapsable shovels and bedding rolls, I thought more of the sculptures in the Korean War memorial, representing a time before I was born.
In the background of the sets, props, and costumes, the actors play their roles. A common practice in regional theatres is to have a “star” performer to draw audience who might not otherwise go to the theatre. I am not usually too concerned with these big names, as I see few movies and less TV. Thus, I rarely have any attachment or opinion of the actor. For some actors stage is their passion, while movies, TV, and commercials their means to pay the bills, or if they have a big break, their means to live as they wish on residuals. However, stage acting requires real time performances, whereas movies and TV productions are made in the cutting room. Not enough enthusiasm? Do another take. Slip up on a line? It can be cut out. While the actress who portrayed Mother Courage has a long list of credits, these did not prepare her for a demanding role. Notoriety does not engage an audience for two and a half hours.
Similarly, her stage presence created imbalances with the rest of the cast. I do not know whether the falter was with her acting, and given that the play has a number of odd musical numbers, singing training, or whether she was restricted by the director. However, she and several of the cast appeared to want to make Mother Courage a drawing room melodrama, just with the drawing room being the edges of battle ravaged towns and military camps. On the other hand, other groupings of actor wanted to bring a different frenzy of energy that the play needed, and which fit the presentational style much better.
Honesty, rather than making the play an Oscar Wilde satire on society, it would do better as a Max Brother’s send up. Soldiers should come storming onto the set yelling and brandishing their weapons, Mother Courage should be brow-beating them away, and the leaches of the play (i.e. the priest, cook, and prostitute) should have sucked us dry. If the script will not let us empathize with any of the characters (the mute daughter was the only character I developed any interest or concern for), then we should see them in the grotesquest distortions of humanity.
Finally, the actors on many occasions recited lines for no particular motivation. I am alway impressed with an actor add some emphasis or gesture that makes perfect sense with what they are saying. If an actor opened Romeo and Juliet without biting his thumb, the whole play would have no ground for conflict. Mother Courage has some hilarious barbs woven into the lines. But, without understanding in the delivery we cannot laugh. Mother Courage is full of sadness. But, without dramatizing those lines, words merely form sentences.
For instance, in one scene Mother Courage worries about her daughter’s potential to find a husband. She voices concern about her looks, inability to speak, and then repulses at her having lice. The actress said all this and walked away. She needed to flick a louse off of her, or take her coat and shake it out. That line needed some action.
In the end, Mother Courage’s children have all died in the wars. A brief peace has driven her business into ruin. But, conflicts arise again, and the solider set off for more battles, with Mother Courage and Her Chart following. No one is wiser to the folly of war, or can find a different resolution, not even those of us filing out the aisles.
After the play, we had dinner with some friends. In our conversation, I asked our friends, who are much better educated in history and politically connected, what was really happening in the Ukraine and Crimea. “Putin is a thug” was the quick summary, followed by, “All world leaders are thugs, and if you don’t elect a thug for President, those other thugs will take advantage of it.” I think that this captures what Brecht was after. Large thugs, little thugs. War is full of thugs. This is what was missing from this production of Mother Courage and Her Children: real thugs.