Mother Courage and Her Children, by Bertolt Brecht; English adaptation by Eric Bentley. Directed by Tony Simotes.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"It’s the crooked ones who enjoy life!"
Mother Courage always advances, always moves forward, never backward. What is past is past and must be forgotten if at all possible. What lies ahead is all that is important, that and her children. She would do anything for her children, even lie to them about their futures. Eilif, Kattrin, and Swiss Cheese all love their mother and all of them eventually are their own undoing.
Author Bertolt Brecht was a poet whose plays used alienation as a technique. We aren’t supposed to like or to sympathize with Mother Courage in any way. That people have always felt her losses disturbed the author greatly, but he had created a woman who survives every effort to destroy her and that is a quality that is hard not to admire. In the hands of Olympia Dukakis directed by Tony Simotes in the three-quarter thrust stage at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA it is impossible to just sit and observe. You have to feel something.
Covering twelve years (1624-1636) in the Thirty Years War "Mother Courage..." follows its title character from Sweden through Poland, Germany, Bavaria and almost Holland. The episodic nature of the piece means that we can only know isolated incidents in her life. In the course of the play she has two lovers, a cook for the Swedish King and a chaplain, a man whose religion matters less than his sense of its impression on others. Both men have feelings for her and both admire her ability to survive. That and her hidden treasures engage them for a time, but she moves on from them as she needs to do and we almost never know how this affects them.
The voice of the actress makes the role what it is. In this case, the dark, gravelly, almost masculine-at-times voice of Olympia Dukakis provides a soulful depth to the character. Therefore when she loses a loved one we can feel it through her voice alone. We can hear the pain that she rarely displays physically. At one point she paces frantically, at another she hangs her head in mourning to hide her face. She can rail against her fate with a passionate throb and she can calmly state her resolve not to be beaten down. And always, Dukakis as Courage is indomitable. Like another great character created by Brecht, Jenny of The Threepenny Opera, this woman will always emerge into the morning with her head held high defying anyone to take her down.
Mother Courage has three adult children and yet her sexual energy compels men to her side. Dukakis presents no such picture but somehow the two men who love her character are totally believable. Apollo Dukakis has the role of the Chaplain and he plays a jealous man who cannot tolerate the fact that his mistress has other lovers in the wings. He plays the warmth, charm and intolerance of the character with equal strength and his ultimate betrayal of her comes into play in a way that seem just right. It is a performance to remember.
Likewise the Cook is given a problematic personality that Mother Courage never finds off-putting. Played here by John Douglas Thompson the man is a womanizer whose better sides are brought out, even if only temporarily, by her. She inspires real love in a man who cannot love for real. He can only find and use the finer qualities of the women he seduces. Thompson is so believable in the role that it seems to have been written just for him. We may suspect him of a certain smarminess, but when we discover that we were right about him all along we still like him. That is a tough challenge for an actor and Thompson is definitely ready for it here.
Mother Courage’s children are played by a remarkable trio of company folks. Josh Aaron McCabe is Eilif whose desertion of her to join the army is the key to the play’s plotted obstructionist details. Losing him whose strength helped her move forward as he pulled the cart is a circumstance that you would expect to stop her progress, keep her close this spot where her beloved son is being used by the enemy (and they are all the enemy to her). But she persists on her journey knowing that she will find him again elsewhere and she does. McCabe plays the idiot in the role to perfection, always boasting of his childlike achievements in battle. His ultimate downfall is this animal pride that characterizes Eilif. McCabe pulls it off brilliantly with simplicity and a glaring animal gaze.
Swiss Cheese is played by Ryan Winkles whose simple eagerness to aid his mother brings him down. Winkles turns in another wonderful performance in this part, a man who ultimately grows to resemble his peculiar name. His personal wiring factors heavily into this part he is playing and there is a spark to his scenes that none of the others have. We learn little about the character but his high electrical charge is obvious in every scene.
Brooke Parks is the only newcomer to this scene. In her first season with the company she has been entrusted with Kattrin, the dumb daughter of Dukakis’s Courage. She cannot speak words but she can live up to her mother’s name through her actions and reactions to the horrors of the world around her. She has already played the imperious Princess in this season’s "Love’s Labour’s Lost" and in this play she becomes a princess in her actions late in the play. It is her assassination that finally brings Mother Courage to the brink, to that edge of despair we assume she should feel. Kattrin’s history of abuse is played out with body language and facial expressions and the intangible utterings of a woman without a tongue. Parks makes her place in this company as tangible as Winkles’ or McCabe’s.
This family is surrounded by a horde of characters distinguished by the fine playing of their interpreters. Paula Langton provides the oft-needed comic relief with her portrayal of Yvette Pottier. Michael F. Toomey brings an arrogant soul to life as the Swedish Commander. Nafeesa Monroe makes the most of her trio of characters and does it with an actor’s comportment. And these are only three of the many fine actors playing cropped characters in the play. Brecht paints the 17th century populace of Europe with a Pointilist’s many dots. However it takes the talents of a company like this to bring them to urgent and immediate life.
Tony Simotes has directed all of these people in all of these roles, thirty-one of them and more played by sixteen actors, with an eye to the comedy within the tragedy of Mother Courage’s life. His use of Brecht’s insidious humorous touches is golden here, keeping the playwright’s people alive and separate and certain. The texture of the play is held within the ensemble’s skill and the director punches through the heavy drape of history to reformat this tapestry into living threads. In Simotes’ vision there are only real people and he keeps the play alive with that wondrous humanity that is centered in Dukakis’ wandering mother.
The Brechtian set has been designed by Patrick Brennan, the lush, ruined period costumes by Arthur Oliver and the impressively moody lighting by Matthew E. Adleson. Scott Killian has composed new music that bolsters Paul Dessau’s original pieces. All of the values here are of equal strength and make the show a winner.
There is more emotion and more power than in many of Brecht’s works and in the hands of this company there is also more success in telling this difficult story. Some people may wish to leave after the first part of the play (some did at the opening) but the full, nearly three hour exploration into the twelve years of Mother Courage’s wartime venture is worthy of your attention. More than worthy, it is a demanding look at how things don’t really change through the centuries, justifying the Chaplain’s remark that "the war can look forward to a healthy future." It is a comment that rings to the guts.
Olympia Dukakis, Brooke Parks, Ryan Winkles and Josh Aaron McCabe; photo: Kevin Sprague
Olympia and Apollo Dukakis; photo: Kevin Sprague
Olympia Dukaks as Mother Courage; photo: Kevin Sprague
Mother Courage and Her Children runs in repertory at Shakespeare and Company on the Tina Packer Playhouse stage through August 25. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go to their website at www.shakespeare.org.