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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Mother Courage - Brecht without Brecht

Review Mother Courage by Bob Goepfert

LENOX, Mass. – “Mother Courage and Her Children,” a play written by Bertolt Brecht in 1939, is considered to be one of the great plays of the 20th century.  Yet, it is rarely produced. at least in the United States.

This production which runs at Shakespeare & Company through August 25 both displays the greatness of the material and helps one understand why the theater companies avoid the material.

Overall this is a tame version of a play that should be almost harsh.  Instead of offering the material in what is known as “Brechtian-epic” fashion, which means stripping away all theatrical elements for a bare bones in-your-face style, director Tony Simotes offers the play in a more traditional and conventional style with moody lighting, and genuine characters.

This choice makes the play more emotionally accessible but it mutes the confrontational and didactic aspects of Brecht’s approach to Parable Theater and makes the work seem tame and even vague.

However the brilliance and passion of Brecht’s material remains. Written as a response to Hitler and the start of World War II, “Mother Courage” is an honest, harsh look at the insanity of war and the human cost of living in a perpetual state of terror.  It forces the audience to look into their own conscience and wonder to what degree we all sustain and support  wars because they good for business.

Academy-Award winning Olympia Dukakis plays “Mother Courage” as a street-smart single-minded woman whose only interest is the survival of her children.  The second most-important thing in her life is her wagon filled with supplies from which she sells goods to the soldiers during the years 1624-1636 in the midst of the European Thirty Year War.

The tragedy of the play is that her business eventually costs the lives of her two sons and daughter.  Each dies because of an excess of a single virtue – kindness, bravery and honesty which Brecht makes clear in times of war those traits are weaknesses rather than a virtues.  

Even if you disagree with Dukakis’ single-note stoic performance you will respect her choice which succeeds more often than not.  For sure you will leave the Tina Packer Playhouse with respect for her courageous performance and admiration for this 82 year old actress willingness to tackle this monstrously demanding role.

Brooke Parks, is wonderful as the mute daughter Kattrin, Apollo Dukakis grows into the role of The Chaplin and the charismatic John Douglas Thompson,( though too young for The Cook) finds moments of brilliance with the character.  Paula Langton is delightful as the whore Yvette Pottier and, arguably, comes closest to capturing the performance style associated with Brecht.  The rest of the large cast is uneven, often because they permitted to utilize a confusing variety of performance styles. 

This Shakespeare & Company production of “Mother Courage” is not the epic theater one associates or craves from a Brecht play – but it is a decent production of an important play.

“Mother Courage and Her Children,” at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass.  Through August 25, in rolling repertory at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass.  413-637-3353, 


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