Saturday, February 8, 2014

Review: Mother Courage and Her Children at Arena Stage

There is nothing so sad as seeing a professional actress forget her lines.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's a brief summary of the show. A badass pushes her cart around during the Polish-Swedish War and Thirty Years Wars War with her much beloved children, being as massively greedy as possible as it is to be when you're poor and in the middle of a battlefield. She doesn't want her children to join the war effort. They do. They die because of it. Directly because of the war and indirectly because Mother Courage gets a bit too greedy and tries to turn a profit. There is music but inexplicably not a musical. It was written by a German guy who fled his country in 1939. The implications of that are obvious.

So last night, I was lucky enough to be invited to go see Mother Courage and her Children at Arena (for free!) by a friend. Personally I have a love/hate relationship with Brecht. He's incredibly important to study since he's a great example of epic theatre, activist theatre and a good example of in-text Psychological Gesture  which is a weird concept developed by Stanislavsky wherein characters have a physical tic that denotes their personality, often used to get actors instantly into character. The play lends itself very well to Method which is why I think a lot of older people and Artistic Directors like it. At the same time I think that's why my generation hates it so much. It's a bit too early post-modern for us with it's self aware conventions of having each scene being introduced by an actor, or it's overly thematic music that doesn't go far enough to make it a proper musical.

Anyway, that's one bias. The other bias is that I know, and have had the honor to work with Rick Foucheux, the actor who played The Chaplain both as an actor and as his Dramaturge. He's an amazing guy and an powerful actor. So with regards to him my hopes were high even when my hopes for the show were low.

Anyway, back to my main complaint, Kathleen Turner. The titular Mother Courage was just barely off-book for the first part of the play and it showed. Badly. She never outright dropped a line to her credit, but I saw one or two close calls and she was often reaching. While I'm not always the greatest with lines myself (unless it's Shakespeare), seeing that made me realize what I could potentially subject an audience too if I wasn't careful.

Apart from that she was, okay. Not great, but just okay. Mrs. Turner has a bit of a tendency to swallow her lines at the end of a sentence which one of my acting teachers was always on my ass for, so I was disappointed to see it here. However one of the things she (and the Dramaturg) understood that I liked, was that she loved her kids. It's easy to play her as a complete bitch but the major conflict with the character is that she loves money a lot and her children a lot and thinks the two will never come into conflict. When her kids died she was very believable and heartbreaking. That said I didn't see much character development over the years which, while probably intentional, wasn't interesting although she was often funny.

Rick Foucheux as the Chaplain was pretty good. Again, like everything else in this play he got better as the show went on but at first he started out mildly (and oddly for me) lukewarm. However, having seen him act I'm sure this was for fear of upstaging Kathleen Turner who really should've given more anyway. However, by the last scene with his character (an excellent showdown between him and The Cook) he's back to his usual vocally and physically commanding self while still managing to portray kind of a skeezy guy. Good on you, Mr. Foucheux!

However the acting prize goes to the aforementioned Cook played by the incredible Jack Willis. I want to be this guy when I grow up. Managing to do so much with so little overt acting effort, he manages to steal every scene he's in with his little goofy, pessimistic voice alone. His crush on Mother Courage, while it could easily just be silly, sweet, or creepy comes off as all three at once and somehow, despite the creepy, manages to be utterly utterly charming. So charming is Jack Willis' Cook that when the drama starts around him it's easy to be afraid that the scene where he tries to convince The Mother to leave her daughter behind and run away with him, will be jarring, badly acted, or unbelievable. It is none of those things. Even his song was great and generally the music in this show (in my opinion) was obnoxious or easy to ignore.

Finally I have to mention Monalisa Arias. There are no small parts only small actors and this woman is proof. she just played a nameless Catholic soldier but she stole all the scenes she was in by being at the same time by the book and incredibly menacing. As a country we're so enrapt in war narratives, and we like seeing professional portrayals of our soldiers but Monalisa managed to take that same extremely American military officer character and turn it against the audience. This was brilliant. Usually when we see antagonistic soldiers their either evil assholes or noble adversaries. She was just a professional who made no qualms about disliking her enemies. Good on you, Ms. Arias.

The set was in the round and minimalist which worked since that combatted the general 'epicness' of the play and gave it some grounding. The lights were unsubtle which also worked for the opposite reason. Sound design was serviceable but mediocre. Direction was pretty good, handling complex multi person scenes, finicky things like the cart, and dance numbers with aplomb. The costuming and the props however were interesting since they were deliberately atemporal and spoke to all wars and had World War I, World War II and Middle Eastern War influences as well a keeping the general look from 1624 to 1636.

Final Score? Six out of ten for theatre snobs like me, and eight out of ten for everyone else. I do think it's worth seeing though, if only for historical value and if only so that you can say you've at least sampled a Bertolt Brecht play. If you do see it and hate the first act more than I did, don't despair, the second act is much better.

To good life, and good theatre, and I hope to see you again!


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