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Mother Courage and Her Children

Give A.R.T. a Second Chance

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Staff Writer

Directed by Janos Szasz

Written by Bertolt Brecht

With Karen McDonald, Mirjana Jokovic, Tim Kang, Jonathon Roberts, Thomas Derrah, John Douglas Thompson, Paula Plum

At American Repertory Theater

There is one disquieting conclusion that can be made from watching a lot of productions at American Repertory Theatre. If, as everyone agrees, A.R.T. is at the cutting edge of modern theatre -- well, then, this cutting edge is a very, very small place; not as much of an edge as a spot, really.

To put this simply, most A.R.T. productions look exactly the same, whether the play produced is Shakespeare or modern, whether it is Russian Yuri Yeremin directing Chekhov (last season’s Ivanov) or Hungarian Janos Szasz directing Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. There will be sets, hugely impressive sets, dwarfing the actors. There will be impressive special effects, most likely snow machines running for half an hour at a time. There will be complex music and sound effects. There will be the general feeling that the production team thought more about themselves than about the play.

All of this applies to Mother Courage, even though this is mostly a successful effort -- by leaps and bounds the most emotionally evocative production I’ve ever seen at A.R.T. Half of the time (when the direction works to complement Brecht, rather than itself), the results are nothing short of splendid.

Brecht’s war saga is full of larger-than-life characters, exciting action, and some of the most haunting moral dilemmas of theatre. Many of those are realized quite beautifully by Szasz: the usage of lighting is highly atmospheric, the staging is (mostly) lucid and natural, and the usage of sounds -- music and noise and their contrast -- is nothing short of brilliant. The actors are also at the top of their game: Karen McDonald makes a supremely tortured protagonist; Thomas Derrah and John Douglas Thompson add a sense of humor and vitality as her lovers; and all three actors who portray the titular children are very good indeed. The standout of the three is Mirjana Jokovic, who gives the most evocative performance even despite the fact that her character is mute.

As long as the production is about Brecht’s play, it is wonderful. As soon it stops being about that, it stops dead in its tracks. Mother Courage is so clearly intended as a critique of war that the decision to stage it with modern costumes and props (another A.R.T. staple) is crushingly obvious. In this aspect, the production clearly wants to make a grand statement about war, and it does so by mixing in second century B.C. Chinese terra-cotta warriors, machine guns, landsknecht helmets, and similar props, each paraded about as a new piece of eye candy, to a rather distracting effect.

Even more disruptive are the supremely tedious interludes between the scenes (added by the director), which, also trying for the same grand statement, consist of about a dozen men moving about the stage in the fog, slowly hitting each other with bamboo sticks for about five minutes at a time. One can merely compare any of these scene to, say, a shatteringly powerful finale (the title character disappears into the snow storm) to see the difference between working with a play and working against it.

The beauty and inspiration of scenes such as the ending is enough to make Mother Courage a touching and a transporting experience -- but, once in a while, despite all of the baroque touches of direction, there is a nagging feeling of familiarity. We all know what it breeds.