by JK Clarke
It’s pretty much impossible to review Classic Stage Company’s (CSC) new production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children without mentioning the controversy and intrigue which has surrounded it. The theater world was rocked on December 30 when, after several weeks of previews the show’s star, Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins, announced she would be leaving the show just a week prior to its scheduled opening. Pinkins’ departure, we eventually learned, followed serious creative disagreements with director (and CSC departing artistic director) Brian Kulick, the heart of which, she stated, were the absence of “black perspective” in the production (and more specifically Mother Courage’s character), which had been ambitiously set in present day wars in The Congo. Furious debate over Pinkins’ departure raged in the press, on Facebook and the theater community, with missives flying from Pinkins, Kulick, co-star Michael Potts and, most vehemently, renowned LGBT activist and playwright Larry Kramer. While the debate has valid points on both sides, it has sadly undermined, and considerably foreshortened, a highly anticipated and extremely important production (which finally opened last night with Kecia Lewis heroically stepping in at the last moment to take over Pinkins’ abandoned role). As our purpose here is to review the play, we will not venture any further into the controversy. We have, however, provided links should you desire to read more on the matter.
Mother Courage and Her Children was Brecht’s rage against war and fascism, written just as the Nazis began to completely infect the world in 1939, just moments before the onset of World War II. The play is set, however, during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648 (which was more of a war of Catholic versus Protestant states as the Holy Roman Empire began to fragment and European states began to assert themselves), as Brecht liked to distance himself from political matters at hand. The story, a microcosmic study of the futility and ugliness of war itself, centers on Mother Courage (Kecia Lewis), a “canteen woman” who sells items of necessity (from poultry to blankets) to soldiers on both sides of the battle, in order to sustain herself and her three fatherless children. The focus on Mother Courage emphasizes both the repulsiveness of profiteering on death to the futility of trying to survive in such conditions (ultimately, Mother Courage loses all three of her children, collateral damage and casualties of war that they are). In the process, she encounters and interacts with several different types of characters from the hopelessly hopeful Chaplain (played as serenely absent by Michael Potts) to the Cook (Kevin Mambo), Courage’s erstwhile lover and confederate to the opportunistic floozy, Yvette (Zenzi Williams).
Just as with Shakespeare, it matters not where you set Mother Courage. War is war, and will always be vile and bring out both the best and worst in people. Mostly worst. So Kulick’s setting the play in The Congo of recent times (though without specifying exactly which regime) works just fine. This device was used in the terrific 2015 Netflix movie, Beasts of No Nation (starring Idris Elba), which indeed specified no nation (though was presumed to be The Congo), but spoke in general to the horrors of the various ongoing wars (and the use of pre-adolescent children as brutalizing soldiers) of the region. The only seemingly out of place element in the production was the music. Brecht uses songs (which essentially reiterate what just took place) in Mother Courage to both punctuate the moment and to allow ideas and events to settle in. Though the songs are meant to be blaring and unsettling at the end of scene, to wake us up, in fact, that idea doesn’t come through in this production. Duncan Sheik’s (Spring Awakening) music, on the contrary, has a more somnambulic effect; and despite all other elements of the play being fundamentally African, the songs sound like a mix of light country, new age and Broadway light. They are so glaringly out of place as to make one wonder if one has dozed off and awoken in a different theater. Kulick would have been better off, for the sake of flow (which was already stilted) in this production to eliminate the songs altogether and reclaim some of the nearly hour’s worth of the play he cut. There were other elements that made for the disjointed feeling of the play. Military style loudspeakers, a la the television series M*A*S*H* announced the passage of time or other chorus-like changes in time. Potts’ Chaplain character announces that “The mills of God grind slowly,” and indeed they do, but a play about war has no reason to.
Ultimately, nothing could rescue the stilted course of this Mother Courage production. And that’s a shame, as Tony Straiges simple yet impactful set and Toni-Leslie James’ realistic costumes (particularly the unlikely likeliness of Swiss Cheese’s Charlie Brown shirt) did well to transport the play to the Congo easily and naturally. And then there were the standout performances: Kecia Lewis’s Mother Courage was powerful and multi-dimensional, sometimes a powerful woman of her convictions, sometimes delusional, sometimes tragically lost . . . just as one would be whilst trying to survive a war and keep your children alive; and then there was Mirirai Sithole as Mother Courage’s mute adolescent daughter, who absolutely stole the show without uttering a word. Sithole’s earnest expressiveness had the audience enraptured and feeling all her frustrations, sorrows and pains as she tried in vain to communicate with her mother, brothers and elders. It is a shame her performance ended up a little bit lost—and not main story—of a turbulent production that still hasn’t quite made up its mind.
Mother Courage and Her Children. Through January 24 at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues). www.classicstage.org
Photos by Joan Marcus