nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 2, 2005
If you leave Jean Cocteau Repertory's impassioned and incendiary revival of Mother Courage feeling like you've been pummeled—and that's just how I felt—be aware that (a) that means you're still alive, still human, and still able to respond viscerally to suffering and injustice; and (b) this is precisely how Bertolt Brecht and Marc Blitzstein meant for you to feel.
The Cocteau couldn't have managed a more timely work of theatre to open the weekend of the Hurricane Katrina disaster: most of us are responding viscerally to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of our fellow countrymen and -women and to the apparent injustices perpetrated on them by a neglectful government. This is precisely the subject of Brecht's play with music, only he set his tale in the early part of the 17th century, during the Thirty Years War, a marathon of carnage and destruction that, according to one book I consulted after the show, taught mankind only one lesson: that war breeds not peace but more war. It's a lesson we seem still not to have learned, along with so many others, such as compassion for our fellow creatures, thinking long-term rather than shortsightedly about our world and its resources, and actually being accountable for our actions—all of our actions.
Brecht's heroine (anti-heroine?) is a middle-aged woman with three grown children struggling to survive in an inhospitable world. She makes her living as a profiteer, selling goods that help keep the seemingly endless war going. As long as the war continues, she's able to eke out a living and often do much better than that; but when peace breaks out, her business goes to hell and though she says she's glad for the respite she's eager for the conflict's inevitable resumption. In Mother Courage, Brecht has created a consummate capitalist, which by his definition makes her irrefutably a hypocrite: it's not possible, he's arguing, for a person to make their living off the back of somebody else (or in this case, more graphically, over the dead body of somebody else) and still adhere to basic morality. By making his capitalist a mom, he's able to examine another quandary, namely, the tradeoff between looking out for your own best interest and looking out for your kids'. (Privileged people may think they don't have to make such a choice, but as Brecht understood and the folks who squandered so many of our country's resources are evidently just finding out, there's ALWAYS a tradeoff.)
Almost immediately after the play starts, Mother Courage pretends to tell her children's fortunes and predicts dire ends for all of them—her intent being to keep them close to her and therefore shielded from danger. But that's not what a parent can finally do, no matter how hard she tries; and so literally every time Mother Courage turns her back on her brood, something terrible happens to one of them, until in the end she is left alone but striving, though it's not particularly clear for what.
She also abandons (or is it that she's abandoned by) the one man whom she seems capable of sort-of loving, an army cook whose pragmatic relish for living matches her own.
The story plays out in three progressively more brutal and dire acts, filled with cynical talk about the inconvenience of dignity, the efficacy of taking (as opposed to giving or, what's more foolish, waiting for someone to give), and the worth and/or worthlessness of human life. There are no battle scenes, but the toll of the endless war is constantly, ruthlessly, and bitterly felt. Brecht punctuates the drama with songs that accost the audience with the play's main ideas. Act Two builds on Act One rather relentlessly; and then in Act Three, it almost feels like there's hope for the characters to at least breathe some un-foul air—there's even an act of unselfish nobility (don't worry: it will not go unpunished). Mother Courage and her Cook philosophize in a "Solomon Song" (similar to, but not exactly the same as, the one Brecht put into his Threepenny Opera) and conclude that any approach to life that's not self-serving is doomed to failure. Whatever faith you might still have in human nature is challenged at every turn for the full three hours of the show. We leave shaken and stirred: the world doesn't have to be like this, does it?
The production uses Marc Blitzstein's translation of the play, in its world premiere; it serves the piece beautifully. So does Paul Dessau's deliberately hard-on-the-ears score; and so does Giles Hogya's magnificent lighting design, which enables director David Fuller (whose work throughout is splendid) to create breathtakingly effective stage pictures with characters in silhouette or bas-relief that wordlessly highlight Mother Courage's themes and ideas. Roman Tatarowicz's spare set and Viviane Galloway's evocative costumes add immeasurably to the environment.
Jason Wynn, at the piano, and Lorinda Lisitza, in the title role, do astonishing work in marathon assignments. Eight other actors play the other several dozen characters who populate the play: Danaher Dempsey, Timothy McDonough, Sara Jeanne Asselin, Angus Hepburn, Seth Duerr, Lynn Marie Macy, Mickey Ryan, and Taylor Wilcox. Hepburn, one of the Cocteau's great treasures, has some remarkably affecting moments as an army chaplain who becomes Mother Courage's assistant for a time. And Duerr, in just his second season with the company, is nothing short of a revelation as the Cook, bringing the contradictions and complexities of a flawed and ordinary man into sharp focus.
Mother Courage is essential theatre, as far as I'm concerned. Bravo to the folks at the Cocteau for being brave enough to risk shaking up and even shattering the New York audience with a work that demands to be listened to.