CU Players Outplay Themselves with Mother Courage and Her Children
Written by Bwog Staff
This weekend, CU Players is performing Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 work “Mother Courage and Her Children.” You can still catch their final performance tonight at 8:00 pm at the Minor Latham Playhouse in Milbank. Bwog sent our drama doyen Ali Sawyer to see the show.
Right until the end, the line between performance and reality is blurry. When the audience walks into the Minor Latham Playhouse, three actors are already onstage with two dancers standing behind them in sharp black ensembles. Two of the actors—lounging in chairs and sporting army green helmets, military jackets, and combat boots—scream at the third to keep dancing. Wearing a wrinkled men’s dress shirt and oxfords, she flails around in every way imaginable, even crawling on her knees like an animal. The soldiers scream things like “if you don’t dance faster, I’m gonna fucking shoot you in the head.”
This is just the warm-up. The usual “turn off your cellphones” announcement features the same actor, after her dance marathon, climbing over the audience. The play is inescapable—once you’re in the theater, you’re inside the play’s universe.
It’s a strange universe. For one thing, the show, despite its several markedly masculine roles, boasts an all-female cast. Although it is set in the early 17th century, it uses modern props like a metal food cart. The show places us at a vantage point that forces us to consider three distinct time periods: the 1600s, the WWII era in which the play was written, and the modern day. For an old play that is so rich in contemporary, relevant ideas, the incorporation of modern props is an effective choice to engage the audience. The 17th century seems much less distance when you’re looking at the sort of food cart you walk past every day.
Mother Courage and Her Children tells the story of a woman nicknamed Mother Courage who pedals war goods (from the food cart) to support herself and her three children: her sons, Eilif and Swiss Cheese, and her mute daughter, Kattrin. The performance is split into scenes, each heralded in by the crash of a gong. Then one of the performers stands under a bleaching spotlight and recites a blurb that sets the context.
The play further blurs the border with reality by addressing the lighting tech, Marcus, by his real name throughout the show. (When we learn that the brief spell of peacetime is over, Mother Courage calls, “Marcus, I need some wartime lighting!” And the stage floods red.) The lighting is a powerful addition to the show’s bizarre drama. The red lighting sometimes turns to blinding white shining in the audience’s eyes, a literal representation of the notion that the horror of war is sometimes too much to look at.
From the moment she appears onstage as Mother Courage, Gabby Beans, CC ’14, captures the audience with her powerful voice. Beans has a way of peering knowingly into the audience whenever she is in the spotlight, nose angled up toward the ceiling, that looks as self-assured as it does misguided. It’s an excellent representation of her character.
Another standout actor is Alexandra Warrick, BC ’17, who plays Yvette, the army prostitute. Yvette is first seen lounging on a chair in a skimpy red bra, sucking on a bottle of alcohol. Warrick shines in the performance with the sharp movements and quirky mannerisms she brings to her character, like when she crosses one leg over the other and throws her head back to take a drink. Like Beans, she has a commanding voice that rumbles when she emphasizes certain words.
With their costuming and distinctive acting, the three actors playing Mother Courage’s children quickly define their unique characters. Eilef is brooding and smoking in a tattered t-shirt. Swiss Cheese grins wildly with his short shorts, knee socks, and bright red backpack. The mute Kattrin, played by Rachel Shafran, CC ’16, studies her face in a pan, but often self-consciously gathers her long sweater around her. Unable to add dimension to her character with words, Shafran compensates with a devastating concerned expression that she wears for much of the show, and an equally devastating expression of joy that we see later. We quickly learn: the play communicates exclusively in emotional extremes.
One of the play’s great ironies is when peace strikes, and Mother Courage is devastated despite all the war has taken from her because peace means the end of her prosperity. In the scene immediately before, she wears a long chain of golden beads to symbolize her riches, soon to vanish. “Don’t tell me peace has broken out,” Mother Courage complains.
Despite Mother Courage’s promise that Kattrin will find a husband in peacetime, no husband shows up for the silent girl, but a much worse fate. She is raped by a soldier and returns to her mother with a bloody abrasion on her face. Shafran walks to the stage with a telling, broken expression. Beans responds with the softness of a devastated mother without losing the hard, pragmatic nature her character demands.
Near the end of the play, the characters must be silent because they are trying to evade the Catholics. But the ever-silent Kattrin picks up a metal pan and beats it repeatedly, producing a steady clanging beat that increases in tempo. The normally solemn girl starts to laugh. Everyone else onstage starts shouting, mixed with the din of laughter and clanging. The audience is encapsulated in dizzying chaos.
The play ends on the symbolic image of Mother Courage gathering up the chain of her food cart all by herself and cycling her legs, but making no progress in moving it forward. The movement mirrors one often performed by the show’s four dancers. Dance adds a purely visual interpretation of tension to the performance, which provides another layer of emotional impact as well as a chance for the audience to digest the immense philosophical questions the play asks them to consider. The dancers usually occupy a platform upstage, but at one point they dance a ballet number at central stage. In keeping with the show’s endless feel, the dancers spend intermission doing ballet combination under the direction of their choreographer, Emma Chaves, CC ’14.
Three musicians in the corner—a pianist, a violinist, and the gong player—punctuate the performance with their expressive musical accompaniment. Although mostly drama, the play is part musical. The diverse music–ranging from a schmaltzy Italian waltz to dark, minor-key singing accompaniment–supplements the play’s exaggerated emotional states, its comical shifts from one extreme to the other. Michael Gilden, CC ’15, composed the score.
Mother Courage was Brecht’s critique of war written nearly a century ago. CU Players’ modern adaptation reminds us that our financial dependence on war has, if anything, increased over the past 100 years. The beauty and artistry of the show’s acting, dancing, singing, music-playing, and even lighting (when it wasn’t glaring in our eyes) remind us of where our priorities really ought to lie.
Tags: a modern adaptation, bringing bertolt to the 21st century, CU Players, i will take falafel from my halal cart and not war boots please and thank you, mother courage and her children, we all want peace except mother courage, what is it good for? absolutely nothing