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Mother Courage and Her Children

Theatre Review by Warren Hoffman

Given the current state of affairs in the world, namely the U.S. occupation in Iraq, the war on terror, not to mention the whole question of who will profit from the oil refineries in the Mideast, The Classical Theatre of Harlem (CTH)'s production of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children is timely to say the least. One of Brecht's most popular works, the play charts 30 years in the life of Mother Courage (Gwendolyn Mulamba) and her three children: Eilif (Leopold Lowe), Swiss Cheese (Jaime Carroll), and Catherine (Maechi Aharanwa), as she earns a living from her wagon of goods, which she hauls through Europe as war rages on without end.

Though originally set in the 17th century, CTH's production, without changing the text, has smartly given the play a contemporary feel through the use of a set (by Troy Hourie) and costumes (by Kimberly Glennon) that evoke multiple periods of war in the 20th century. War and a desire for money are constants that sadly never change, and Brecht's play easily suits itself to this new updated environment.

The challenge of producing Brecht's work is to capture his sense of "verfremdungseffekt" or what is usually termed in English the "alienation effect." Brecht's goal was to distance his audience from the immediacy of a play's emotions by using placards and headlines to divide the play into sections, incorporating songs into the action, and employing visible lighting and set changes. CTH's production manages something in between alienation and heartfelt compassion for the play's war-weary figures. Brecht's bleak text is presented in 12 epic scenes, but unfortunately under Christopher McElroen's direction, the play feels sluggish in many sections. Clearly, some of this is built into the play itself as Brecht's text is fairly repetitive in structure and plot; after all, part of the play's point is that wars never go away or end, but are simply "interrupted" by moments of peace.

Some moments of the production, though, are quite inspired. McElroen's staging of an enemy attack in Scene Three is wild and engaging, with actors making the most of the theatre's black box space. As the "battle" ends, the actors form a tableau of the famous Iwo Jima Memorial only to have Mother Courage hang a "for sale" placard around one of the soldiers' necks. Turning such clever iconography into a visual joke hits home Brecht's point that war always has a commercial angle. The pain and suffering of some can often be turned into income for others. In another scene, McElroen has the industrious Mother Courage selling T-shirts in support of the war effort with sayings such as "Got Courage?" emblazoned upon them. Clearly such kitschy paraphernalia smacks of the goods hawked at Ground Zero not too long ago. Such hilarious and contemporary visual cues infuse Brecht's work with relevance for today's audience and one wishes that there were even more of them in the production.

In terms of the cast, the play is headed by a strong, defiant, and railing Mother Courage played by Gwendolyn Mulamba. If one wishes that her performance were a bit more nuanced to help break up the repetitive monotony of the play's 12 successive scenes, she does convey the essence of Brecht's title figure who does everything in her power to stay alive and protect her children. That said, it is actually the play's supporting characters who fare the best. Mother Courage's two love interests, the Chaplain (Michael Early) and Cook (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), both bring a sense of humanity to their portrayals, which make for interesting and compelling figures.

Similarly, Anna Zastrow is a standout as the whore Yvette, delightfully earthy, full-bodied, and bringing a suitably "white trash" sensibility to this comic role. It is Maechi Aharanwa as Mother Courage's mute daughter Catherine, though, who is particularly noteworthy. Catherine is a challenging role insofar as she is not given any lines, but is forced to communicate utter misery and depression through her limited vocabulary of grunts and eerie shrieking. Aharanwa's Catherine is a haunting and lingering figure despite her lack of words, and in some ways is a more profound character than Mother Courage herself.

Troy Hourie has given the actors a wonderful jungle-gym of a set to work on. Hourie's design, which consists of a revolving stage surrounded by sand bags, barbed wire, and industrial metal remnants, perfectly captures the bombed-out war-torn zone in which the play takes place. Mother Courage's wagon has also been updated for this production, looking more like a small motor home/trailer than a cart of goods. Video monitors (with video design by Elaine McCarthy) are interspersed throughout the set's calculated mess upon which are projected the play's Brechtian scene headings. A clever touch was having a Fox News reporter read Brecht's opening summaries of each scene, truly giving the feel that what we are witnessing could easily be part of a contemporary daily news broadcast.

Despite these touches and the relevance of the play to current events, the parts of CTH's Mother Courage are greater than the whole. Brecht's play is still simply too long to maintain interest over two and half hours, and though McElroen has devised some clever approaches to this material, it's not quite enough to energize the production. Insofar as wars never really go away, though, I'm sure we won't have to wait long before another company takes a stab at Brecht's classic drama.

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Classical Theater of Harlem
Mother Courage and Her Children
Through February 29
HSA Theater, 645 St. Nicholas Avenue near 141st Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444