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Mother Courage and Her Children

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kecia Lewis
Photo by Joan Marcus

The iconic image of Mother Courage hitching herself to her wagon and dragging it on through impossible odds could not be more apropos than it is when it's performed by Kecia Lewis in Classic Stage Company's revival of Mother Courage and Her Children. This is not because either Lewis or director Brian Kulick has unlocked something heretofore unknown or pungently insightful about Bertolt Brecht's searing 1939 antiwar drama, alas, but because the Herculean effort that's been required to get to the production to this point has garnered, at best, Sisyphusian results.

The story behind the story must be recounted here, if only because there's no other way to explain what's currently being performed at CSC. When this production began previews, it was with the Tony-winning star Tonya Pinkins in the title role. But she quit just before the New Year, and she and Kulick became embroiled in a very public (and not a little vituperative) back-and-forth about why that suggested everything from competing artistic visions surrounding Kulick's decision to reset the play (which Brecht wrote to take place during the Thirty Years' War) in the Congo to institutional racism was behind her decision. Lewis was announced and began performing the role last week, after the show was shut down for several days to allow for more rehearsal time.

It has not been remotely enough. Make no mistake: Lewis deserves no blame for her part in Kulick's mess. Even with the haphazardly hacked-and-slashed John Willett translation used here, the role is huge and mind-twistingly intricate, and not the kind of thing anyone could come at cold. Lewis has obviously done her best and then some, and she generally cuts a commanding and maternal figure onstage, and, when her character must sing, she does so with the piercing tone and emotional clarity that correctly brand Mother Courage as unstoppable in all the best and worst definitions of the word.

Beyond that, however, I don't feel as though I can or should pass much judgment on Lewis, as the performance she gave at Saturday night's critic preview simply was not complete. To begin with, she didn't know all her lines; she carried a script through a decent chunk of the show and called to an in-house prompter four or five times beyond that. Because acting typically cannot begin until memorization ends, there's no way to say what Lewis's Mother Courage could someday be. And because the production only runs through this weekend, it seems unlikely that she'll have the time she needs to get wherever she's trying to go.

Even so, Lewis provides the production with its singular bright spot, of an indomitable theatrical force doing everything within her considerable power to keep her enterprise afloat, so she attains some natural kinship with her character. But here's the thing: It doesn't matter. Kulick has so wildly misconceived everything that Lewis's participation, valiant though it may be, is functionally meaningless.

This war-torn Africa exists nowhere but in Tony Straiges's pinch-penny scenic design, Toni-Leslie James's quasi-evocative costumes, Justin Townsend's lights, and the actors' accents. (Duncan Sheik's original music, a sort of tribal-fusion karaoke, is too bland to be anything but dramatically negligible.) There's just no way around the fact that this is not what Brecht intended, and the writing's natural specificity fails to isolate it from such meddling the way, say, Shakespeare's seemingly universal script crafting did his works.

Kulick can strip out any and all references to Catholic-Protestant contention and the northern setting that are inescapable elements of the script, and he has, but in replacing them with nothing he's diluted the word and the tragic power behind a tale of a woman who essentially sacrifices her children to a conflict she cares nothing about ideologically. What's left, then, isn't really Mother Courage and Her Children. Rather, it's a Cliffs Notes, third-hand retelling of a plot synopsis of it that's playing dress-up as either Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize–winning Ruined or Danai Gurira's soon-to-hit-Broadway Eclipsed.

There's no way for the other actors to escape the void in which they're swirling; their roles, robbed of meat and heat, are no longer playable in any traditional sense, let alone opposite a lead who's just not there herself. Deandre Sevon, Curtiss Cook, Jr., and Mirirai Sithole plunge determinedly into Mother Courage's children, but at most tread water. As the Cook and the Chaplain respectively, Kevin Mambo and Michael Potts come closer, but lack the tangible authority those roles benefit from. Only Geoffrey Owens as the General and Zenzi Williams as the prostitute Yvette have crafted the kind of gutsy, recognizable people who must live at the core of any Brecht play.

There is, of course, much joy to be found in Lewis's gumption, which, transcends its surroundings as much as anything here could. You can't help but admire someone who could--and would--take on this kind of a burden under these particular circumstances, and at least as far as energy and drive she never lets you down. That's worthy of real appreciation in my book. And if she never becomes Mother Courage... well, maybe we can just write that off as Brecht's cherished Verfremdungseffekt given its ultimate life? That's something for the scholars, anyway. Too bad Kulick hasn't provided them--or audiences--anything else worth chewing on.

Mother Courage and Her Children
Through January 24
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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