by John Stoltenberg
It takes a wagonload of courage to take on Brecht these days. His “alienation effect” esthetic challenges every theatrical convention that makes a show a contemporary commercial success. He explicitly intended that audiences not get emotionally caught up in his stories and characters. He eschewed sentimentality; he embraced skepticsm and cynicism. He expected the political ideas in his plays—jarring contradictions, points unpleasant, perturbing moral messes—to come alive in audience’s minds and shake them awake, not lull them into sanctimony. The notion of a snob hit would likely revolt him. He consciously refused to mollify the bourgeoise.
All of which makes the new production of Bertolt Brecht’s anti-war classic Mother Courage and Her Children at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater a theatrical event of extraordinary significance.
Could the Fichandler Stage in-the-round seating be a less likely configuration in which to elicit that enigmatic alienation effect? Would subscribers accustomed to seasons’ worth of heart-stopping and heartstring-tugging go along with deliberate detachment? Would top-tier ticket buyers even sit still for the text’s radical Marxist critique of ineluctable capitalist economic forces that wreak class oppression and wage interminable warfare?
Director Molly Smith and Kathleen Turner, wanting to work together again after their hit Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, picked out Mother Courage as the vehicle for Turner’s return to Arena Stage. And they were spot on; the larger-than-life guts-and-gusto role could not be a better fit for Turner’s kick-ass talents.
More than once as I watched the show, I recalled the impression made on me by legendary Brecht interpreter Lotte Lenya (composer Kurt Weill’s widow) when, as a callow high school youth on a trip to New York City, I saw her as Jenny in The Threepenny Opera at what’s now the Lucille Lortel Theatre. All these years I thought that performance peerless, one I’d never see the likes of again, as echt as Brecht gets. Last night Turner joined Lenya’s league and owned it.
The translation by David Hare is dazzling. The hilarious zingers, the trenchant barbs, the pithy jests and lovely lyrics—all come through sounding as fresh and fiery as if Brecht penned them yesterday. The script is actually almost too good (blame both Brecht and Hare for that); it stimulates mental engagement and reflection at such a rapid-fire pace one must savor its smarts in spurts. Turner delivers her lines with savvy flair, yet at no point does she veer from the complex and troubling character as written; at no point does she conceal the character’s ethical flaws; at no point does she appeal for smarmy sympathy through phoney heroism. The convergence of Turner’s tough-minded performance, Brecht’s text, and Hare’s translation anchors the production powerfully.
The 13 musical numbers composed by James Sugg are another highlight. Many members of the excellent cast occasionally carry about musical instruments that they play during the songs. Sugg’s music for Brecht is as good as, maybe better than, Weill’s. Had there been a cast album for sale after, I would be listening to it all day today.
In these and countless other ways Molly Smith’s astute directorial choices achieve a fascinating balance between faithfulness to Brecht’s authorial austerity and an audience’s legitimate expectations for an experience in the theater that feels familiar. It’s hard to imagine a more provocative and satisfying result.