De­liv­ery tar­nishes ‘Mother Courage’

San Francisco Chronicle - - DATEBOOK - By Lily Ja­niak

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.

Si­mone Fin­ney / Ubuntu The­ater Project

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.

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