Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The United States has now been at war in the Middle East for sixteen years, our longest-lasting military action, in spite of dubious motives and unclear goals. No doubt there are doppelgangers of Mother Courage on the scarred lands of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria drawing their life's blood from the chaos of landmines and bombs. During that same time, numerous other wars have flared within and among nations, destroying millions of lives while lining the pockets of a select few. Which is, to state the obvious, why Mother Courage is as current today, in a production being staged by Pangea World Theater at the Lab Theater, as it was in 1975 or 1939.
Mother Courage is a sobriquet for Anna Fierling, a woman who ekes out a living peddling wares from a cart pulled across battle-scared landscapes behind the armies. To those troops who have survived to fight another day, she sells such commodities as pots and pans, wine and harder drink, belt buckles, bootlaces, and whatever else she can get her hands on to sell at a profit. The cart carries the flag of the army she currently follows, easily changed to match her customers, since her only loyalty is to herself and her three children. At the play's opening, her two sons, Eilif and Swiss Cheese, pull the heavy cart while her daughter Kattrin, who is mute, stays hidden inside of it. It is intimated that her children all have different fathers, and the fiercely independent Mother Courage makes no apologies for that. Answering to no one, when told by authorities to produce her license for peddling, she responds, "My license is my honest face."
While Courage (as she is called by those who know) prides herself on her independence, there is no question that she is dependent on the continuation of the war, for she has no other means of support. When, briefly, a pause in the fighting leads to rumors of peace at hand, her first thought is not that Eilif, gone off to fight in the war, willif he livesbe able to come home, but that she may be stuck with merchandise for which there no longer are customers. In the course of her travels she, for a time, takes on a chaplain seeking respite from the carnage, befriends an army cook who matches wits with her, and has repeated encounters with Yvette, a prostitute who, like Courage, ekes out a meager living from the war. She also bears tragic loss as each of her children suffer, in spite of her intent to keep them involved only in the business, and not the fighting of the war.
Brecht devised the play to take place in twelve scenes spread across twelve years, starting in 1624, eight years after the outbreak of the war, and ending in 1636, a dozen years before its conclusion. Thus, we are thrown into a world already torn asunder by war, with its social order upended and security nonexistent. We leave Mother Courage at play's end, still following an army across rutted, burned-out landscapes, still seeking out customers, with no end in sight to the fighting nor to Courage's capturing a slow trickle of sustenance leaking from the treasury dedicated to waging war.
The play remains a powerful statement of the horrors of war, the injustice of the battlefield, and lives made to depend on such an abomination for their own survival. Mother Courage has been called a war profiteer, benefitting from the war and therefore unworthy of our sympathies. Others see her as a victim, living off the war, yes, but with no other choice, as the surplus of kingdoms are funneled into military adventurism fanned by the zeal of religious fervor. As she herself repeats, she has no other way to provide for herself and her children. Unlike those who produce armaments, the war has not furnished her with a lavish lifestyle; it merely keeps her alive, and barely that. After all, she did not start the war. On the other hand, she is no fan of peacetime, for with peace her profit, slight as it is, dries up completely. Has she truly sought a different means of survival, or has succumbed to following the armies as her default, morality be damned? We do not know what becomes of her when peace at last takes hold. Surely, she is too wily with too strong a survival instinct to give up.
Pangea World Theater's production gives voice to this stirring allegory and to the dilemma raised over what we make of Courage in the endwar profiteer or victim? She appears hard hearted, bracing up with stoic determination against the most painful kinds of loss. For us to be drawn into the tragedy of Mother Courage's life, we need to believe that there is a depth of feeling within her stone-cold exterior, that she falls apart on the inside even as she rises up, dusts herself off, and carries on with whatever must be done. Adlyn Carreras is a vibrant actor, but in her performance as Mother Courage, that inner turmoil feels absent. Yes, she exhibits brief and genuine grief after the most anguishing of her losses, as Brecht has written into his text, but when she moves on, we do not glean a wearing away of her inner being with each fresh wound. It is a subtle distinction, but one that diminishes somewhat the power of the play.
Stephanie Ruas makes a powerful impression as Kattrin, unable to speak, but with gestures and intensely staring eyes communicates her fears and sense of helplessness, making her final empowering act one of the most moving of the play's moments. Kat Purcell is feisty as Swiss Cheese, with wit enough to avoid being drafted into fighting by becoming the army paymaster, and Clay Man Soo is persuasive as Eilif, the oldest son who is naively lured into taking up arms, an outlet for his aggressions absent a cause to believe in.
As the Chaplain, David Wiles conveys the character's futile efforts to use faith as a means to explain the deprivation and horror of the war. He states, "This is no common war, but a war for religion, which pleases God," convincing no one but himself. Ricardo Beaird grounds the Cook on a solid footing of pragmatism that serves him well, and draws Courage to his side. Heidi Berg gives Yvette several different personas, as the character herself adapts to be what she must be in order to survive the years of constantly changing players, opportunities and losses. Playing multiple roles, Meg Bradley, Marcela Michelle, and Michael Ooms complete the excellent cast.
Director Dipankar Mukherjee uses the vast open space of the Lab Theater, with its two-storied metal stairways on either side, to give the play a large, expansive feeling of the wide world inundated with war. This use of space has a dramatic impact, yet in setting up such a wide playing field, defuses attention and reduces a feeling of the wages of war closing in on Mother Courage and the others who follow the armies. With so much elbow room, they seem less constrained by the forces beyond their control. Yet the physical attributes of the Lab, with its rough stone wall as a backdrop, serve the play extremely well.
While not a "musical" in the usual sense, Brecht often interspersed songs into his plays, a way of providing broader context for the specific action of the narrative. Mike Olson has composed stirring music for these musical interludes, along with background scoring, well-performed by Homer Lambrecht. Strong contributions from lighting designer Mike Grogan and sound designer Eric M.C. Gonzalez effectively create the chaotic uproar of battle. The costumes designed by Mary Ann Kelling contribute to establishing an environment of people degraded and depleted, with some clever anachronisms, such as Mother Courage's sleeveless field jacket, linking to the battlefields of 2019. Any Mother Courage must have a large and shopworn looking cart, on which she depends for her very life, and this production does not disappoint.
I am glad to have Mother Courage and Her Children brought back to a local stage, and advise anyone who appreciates the genius of Bertolt Brecht, or more broadly, theater that unabashedly conveys a powerful social and political message, to see this production. While I found this particular production suffers somewhat from too little definition given to the vast playing space, and wanted Mother Courage to project a more friable inner life, even as she holds the world at bay with her bravado, Pangea World Theater serves the community well with this earnest and well-crafted version.
Mother Courage and Her Children, through March 31, 2019, at Pangea World Theater, The Lab Theater, 700 1st Street North, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $22.00, $18.00 in advance, $12.00 for seniors and students. For tickets call 612-333-7977 or go to pangeaworldtheater.org.
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht; Translation: Ralph Manheim; Director: Dipankar Mukherjee; Assistant Director: Sir Curtis Kirby; Set Design: Orin Herfindal; Costume Design: Mary Ann Kelling; Lighting Design: Mike Grogan; Sound Design: Eric M.C. Gonzalez; Composer: Mike Olson; Musician: Homer Lambrecht; Vocal Coach: Mira Kehoe; Dramaturg: Meena Natarajan; Stage Manager: Suzanne Cross; Assistant Stage Manager: Sara Truesdale.
Cast: Ricardo Beaird (Cook/ensemble), Heidi Berg (Yvette/ensemble), Meg Bradley (Ordinance Officer/Peasant Woman/ensemble), Adlyn Carreras (Mother Courage), Marcella Michelle (Sergeant/ ensemble), Michael Ooms (Recruiter/General/Peasant Man/ensemble), Kat Purcell (Swiss Cheese/ Peasant Son/ensemble), Stephanie Ruas (Kattrin), Clay Man Soo (Eilif/Soldier), David Wiles (Chaplain/ Soldier).