A letter to my stage manager friend who is working on the current production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children by Frank Theater in
As I said last night, I enjoyed the show. The set and blocking were very good, though the giant industrial space that Frank performs in and the enormous fan-driven space heaters produce audibility challenges for many of your actors. Even those that have strong projection end up sounding a bit strained, especially when they have to sing. The lighting was great, and several effects were just lovely - the "moon", the light through the "upper window", the sweeping curtains employed as tents, walls, title cards, and particularly beautifully, a white-out blizzard. I liked the costumes for the most part, and the make up, again for the most part (a quibble here and there).
I enjoyed several performer's efforts - particularly Annie Enneking, and, once she got going, Heather Bunch. The other performances were not as strong, but several were also quite good. What made Annie stand out was the sincerity she brought to the role - she did not play the character as a cartoon, she gave her a very full internal logic that is absolutely essential if Brecht is going to work for me. Heather Bunch got there eventually, but as I note below, I'd have worked for something different with her character. None of the men really stood out, mainly because they seemed to be played as cartoonish - without the internal logic and sincerity of character to make them seem rational (or even rationally irrational) and human. Biggest problems were with Tom Sherohman’s far too hammy General and John Riedlinger’s wooden and one-note Eilif. Grant Richey and Emil Herrara weren't bad, but not particularly involving either. Admittedly, Richey's role is probably the most difficult to make work, but whether played as a man of twisted faith or a man once faithful who has lost his faith, I didn't feel it from Richey.
In general, I think it was too "nice" a production. Brecht is dark, and while I don't know Mother Courage at all well (first time I've seen it, and I don't even think I've read more than a synopsis of it previously), I think I'd have dug a little deeper in the conceptualization. It is easy to push the generals and clergy into a buffoonish characterization, but I don't think it's what Brecht would have done - sincerity combined with idiocy, or at least ignorance was a much more terrifying theme to him - the sincerity of the banal battling bourgeoisie in Three Penny Opera comes to mind. Opportunists (such as Mother Courage) are a problem, but true believers are a terror, and I think that's how Brecht viewed them. Sincerity, religious fanaticism, rage, and lust for power start wars, the complicity of the opportunists (and Brecht means to indict us all to some degree) keep them going.
I'd have gone a bit darker with Mother Courage, and particularly her children. This woman is a terrible mother, which is part of the horrific irony of her name. She has raised her children near military camps their entire lives - all were conceived there as well. Her eldest son admires the soldiers for their brutality and power - how would he have seen this? What nasty games has he been a party to since he was a child? Her middle son admires the loyalty and rules - as Mother describes her men, you can tell which have had an impact on him; as you learn of Mother's fickleness, lies, and capriciousness you can see that he hungers for everything she fails to provide. I honestly think he despises her, but the loyalty he so admires (and the thick headedness that is his birthright) won't permit him to leave. The daughter should be a holy terror - abused and raped by a soldier as a child ("a soldier put something in her mouth"), she loses the power of speech and hungers with a precocious lust for men, pretty things, and a child of her own to restore the innocence she has lost. The irony of her final heroism coming out of this twisted mass of perverted motives is very Brechtian - what we perceive as heroism is driven by anything but altruism - it's the desperation of a mad woman whose hungers have never been nourished. And she is the most like her mother.
Mother Courage's children should be fascinating and repellent at the same time, like those horrid things the second ghost reveals beneath the robes in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol - Ignorance and Want. Bestial things, and an obvious by-product of the endless brutality and venality of the war, their true mother. You can still find sympathy with Mother Courage, because in spite of all the horrors she's inflicted on them, she loves them ferociously. Just not as much as she loves gold.
Thanks again for the opportunity to see this - it was really enjoyable, and Frank continues to do well with provocative, mind-engaging productions of difficult works. As usual, I spend as much time processing what I've seen as watching it in the first place. That's a lovely gift for any arts organization to give an audience.