Saturday, February 27, 2010

Mother Courage at MTC

With a coterie of fellow theatre lovers, I went to see what for me was one of the most anticipated events of the winter theatre season here: MTC's co-production with the NAC of Bertold Brecht's MOTHER COURAGE.

It was my first chance to see the English language theatre company artistic director Peter Hinton created at the NAC.

Hinton is a director with a fine visual sensibility and the team he assembled for sound, set, lighting and costumes were all first rate. The use of the black uprights was absolutely inspired. However his production of this play about the folly of war and the costs of doing business that unfolded under a red sky felt curiously - bloodless. It's a dog of war with few teeth.

The comedy in the script was played for all it was worth, and largely to good effect, by the seasoned cast. Tanja Jacobs is excellent at depicting the world-weary cynicism of Mother Courage, her short-sighted greed, and her motherly wisdom, but the bottom notes of the depth of character's pain and suffering seemed to elude her tonight.

Similarly the Cook, played with a kind of louche pickled pathos by Geordie Johnston is a womanizer, but the sharp knife of his contempt is flashed ever so briefly in SOLOMON'S SONG. He's an asshole, but a nice asshole who knows that, thanks to his mom, he has a nice home to go to in the end no matter who dumps him.

Richard Donat as Chaplain gets some great lines and he makes the best of being cast in the loser role in a romantic triangle.

Jani Lauzon plays the flashy Yvette the hooker/countess flat-out, making the most of the comedic elements of the character, and showing off her vocal chops.

Still, when I came home, I put on Marianne Faithful singing that rep. Her whiskey gravel voice hits every note in Brecht and Weill's compositions: humour, irony, pathos, rage, desire, longing. It was a breadth and depth of feeling that largely went missing for me, tonight.

I think the blame for this has to be placed on the shoulders of the director. It was as if he thought the only way to sell an audience on a three hour Brecht play was to treat the thing as if it were some sort of musical comedy, that comes to a bad ending quite by accident.

Instead of building on the play's increasingly tragic losses, almost all the big action that happens to the main characters, takes place off stage. Both of Mother Courage's sons, the brave soldier and the honest payroll clerk are dispatched with so we hear, not see, what happens to them. Katrina, her mute daughter is deflowered by  a bunch of drunken rapists, with barely a notice.

The death of Mother Courage's last child, for the one real act of selfless heroism in the entire play gets cut off, almost instantly by a blackout, and the rolling around of set pieces in the dark. The audience was left to cough under a cloud of gunpowder for the denouement:  the delivery of Katrina's lifeless body to her mother. Is there no way in the 21st century to make a big noise on stage, without filling an interior space with stench and smoke? How fair is it to the actors to have to perform under this pall?

Jacob's director left her to perform her big final scene as several people in the audience struggled to breathe. Patrons and performers were both deprived, one final time, of a chance to connect emotionally with the tragedy of the play for the sake of an effect.

There were some great moments in the production: the procession of pianos for the great military leader's funeral, four women singing in beautiful harmony about a poplar at the gate, viewed from the warmth of their home, lit only by the reading lamp on the piano with Mother Courage's peripatetic wagon stationed just beyond the light. The scene between Jacobs and young hothead who wants to kill his boss was brilliance. It was these nuanced moments that made you see all the production could have been, in terms of poignancy and affect, and sadly, is not.

Waneta Storms as Mother Courage's mute daughter Katrina, steals the show by giving a performance full of heart without one false or strained note. If only all the gunpowder, and piano music had held more moments equal to her silence, this might have been a more satisfying, and less shallow-feeling production. Certainly war, of which Brecht speaks so powerfully, has lost none of its power to wreak havoc on our lives.

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