review: mother courage and her children

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[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-MOTHER.html]

MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN

by Bertolt Brecht
Adapted by David Hare
Directed by Elizabeth Carlin-Metz
Original Music by Gregor Mortis and Kevin O’Donnell
Vitalist Theatre at Theatre Building Chicago
1225 West Belmont Avenue / (773) 327-5252
www.vitalisttheatre.org
Through October 22, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 11, 2006

You are immediately, visually, aurally embraced (confronted?) by the artistic and dramaturgical vision driving the inspired, exhausting, and timely “Mother Courage and Her Children” currently on show at Theatre Building Chicago. In the ante space you see inspired boxes, collages and ephemera evoking a past time and no time in particular, accompanied by the familiar yet distant music of World War I. Once in the theatre, a larger version of this aesthetic (boxes, random items, the musicians themselves) crafted by set designer Craig Choma fills the back wall and the central prop and metaphor of the play, a cart selling whatever can be sold. Brecht’s vision, through David Hare’s translation, surrounds you and carries you for three hours.

This play is turgid by design, yet it’s the humor that surprises you as events and speeches unfold. Our core image involves Mother Courage (Lori Myers), slogging through the wars and her cart shop on wheels, making do however she can and struggling to keep her children alive. The three children represent a range of characteristics, including human responses to the oppression and confusions of war: Eilif (Jeremy Clark) is the older and most bellicose who eventually embraces the soldier role; Swiss Cheese (Christopher Hibbard) was intentionally brought up “simple” yet gets into trouble with his earnest honesty; and Kattrin (Kelly Lynn Hogan) is reduced to a state of mute stupefaction by events. Along the way the party welcomes a Chaplain (Rom Barkhordar, delightfully and resonantly also cast in military roles) and a Cook (Winston Evans), both of whom could have been romantic partners for Mother Courage but she cleaves ever more tightly to what she knows – her provision cart. We endure this production (in the most positive sense) as Mother Courage and her children have endured their hardships, yoked to her harness and her livelihood, off into her uncertain future.

Original music by Gregor Mortis and Kevin O’Donnell run a range from broad burlesque to a touching torch song stunningly presented by Anne Sheridan Smith as the prostitute Yvette. This number, presented on a swing suspended from a 2nd story of the back wall, called “The Power of Love”, could be a show stopper.

Director Elizabeth Carlin-Metz and costume designer Rachel M. Sypniewski have chosen to represent the parade of soldiers as if from many countries, of many faiths including no faith, and a number of historical war: Napoleonic, First World War, Second World War, Desert Storm, and others, sometimes juxtaposed (as one point a soldier wears an early 20th century trench coat atop Desert Storm khaki camouflage). The Priest sings at one point: “War is like love – it finds a way – why should it ever end?” Precisely.

Lighting by Richard Norwood is varied and intriguing, especially during scene changes evoking standard changes, slide shows, strobe lighting and film strips, providing syncopated rather than smoothly shifting scenes. Nothing in this experience is intended to be smooth and easy.

The production is visually, conceptually, musically, thematically, intentionally a pastiche of form. This is a stunning theatrical experience.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 11, 2006)

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