Delivery tarnishes ‘Mother Courage’
When Ubuntu Theater Project’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” works, it anticipates your thoughts as a meticulous, omniscient scientist plots a maze for a rat. You can’t go on through the path, and yet you must, proceeding down thought experiments against which every ideal revolts but that war — here the Thirty Years’ War — makes necessary, inescapable.
You understand how a hotspur of a soldier (Regina Morones) could back down from claiming the bonus he deserves. Or why Mother Courage (Wilma Bonet), in a position to buy back the life of her son Swiss Cheese (Kevin Rebultan), might spend his last moments haggling for a little extra cash for herself. Or why she, when proposed to by an earnest clergyman (Shane Fahy), not only can decline his offer, but must.
That’s the cunning of Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 play, whose Ubuntu production opened Saturday, Feb. 9, at Mills College’s Lisser Hall. Character choices and actions that might, in another dramatist’s hands,
provoke easy condemnation here spur something else. It’s not quite sympathy; Brecht regarded sentiment — both emotional identification and its obverse, emotional rejection — as audience lull and opiate.
It’s more a cold, unflinching calculus: What would I do in this situation? Would I have the courage, the conviction to choose other than this character does? Once you’ve made those questions your own, you see for yourself the conditions that create them — how power and money and militancy enslave in the play, and beyond it — without Brecht having to preach or lecture.
But Emilie Whelan’s production, working from a translation by Tony Kushner, achieves these goals only sometimes. The cavernous venue frequently swallows performers’ words, particularly when they seize a microphone for discordant song. Staging, often scrunched in an awkward corner, keeps you constantly aware of how much space isn’t being used rather than focusing your attention on the scene. Mother Courage’s hardscrabble wagon, from which she sells sundry wares to soldiers, often obscures sight lines, so that whole exchanges transpire without your being able to see who’s talking. Bonet, though she has the pluck and the depth that make her born to play one of Western theater’s great roles, repeatedly seemed to be groping for her lines on opening night. When you’re worried about whether a scene can right itself, it’s impossible to invest in character and story.
Many of Whelan’s directorial choices seem to emerge from an urge to try something cool — let’s have all the characters stand in line all of a sudden, speaking directly to the audience rather than each other — rather than demand born of the text and cohesive vision. Especially in the first act, ensemble members’ lines fail to launch, sputtering to the floor before they get a chance to register with a scene partner. That disconnect shows just how much a scene’s stakes — what matters to characters in a given moment, and why — derive from a deeply shared, constantly communicated focus. When that’s lost, it’s tough to pay attention to all the layers of people Mother Courage must go through to save her son’s life or a barrage of yelling during an invasion that might clarify which ensemble members are the besiegers and which the besieged.
Still, almost every performer has a transcendent moment. Kimba Daniels as prostitute Yvette marshals a regiment’s might when she blasts a former lover. Rebultan imbues Swiss Cheese with a guileless openness that instantly creates tension: You know his fragile goodness has to break. When Bonet’s Mother Courage confronts each of her dead children’s bodies for the first time, you get a glimpse of the soul she’s had to extinguish to survive.
But only a very brief glimpse. “I have nothing inside for private dramas,” she tells Fahy’s pastor. In a play that makes you see, as few others do, the dehumanization of war, the impossibility of interior life is the ultimate casualty.
Wilma Bonet plays Mother Courage in Ubuntu Theater Project’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” performed at Mills College’s Lisser Hall. Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 play looks at the conditions and choices people make during war.