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A CurtainUp Review
Mother Courage And Her Children

By by Les Gutman

Corruption is our only hope.
---Mother Courage

James Rana, Jaime Carrillo, Michael Early and Gwendolyn Mulamba
J. Rana, J. Carrillo, M. Early and G. Mulamba (Photo: Troy Hourie)

Abundant theorizing aside, the aim of Brecht is resonance. Tell the story, but do not allow the audience to get so lost in it that it can't see the forest for the trees.

Mother Courage is a play about war and peace, money, religion and mothers. Perhaps there has been a day since Brecht wrote it on which these subjects were not on the front burner, but I rather doubt it. That said, it's hard to imagine a time in which these issues were more resonant than today. Mother Courage is every young soldier's mother and Halliburton rolled into one.

The Classical Theatre of Harlem, directed by the company's Co-Founder and Executive Director Christopher McElroen, wisely steers clear of the temptation to underscore the parallels. And unlike Ntozake Shange's version twenty-odd years ago at The Public, its utilization of a largely black cast only affects the play at the margins (and perhaps most notably in William "Spaceman" Patterson's very effective songs). McElroen pays homage to Brecht's notion of "epic theater" (each scene, as an example, is introduced by a Fox News report on video monitors located randomly around the stage; there is some random breaking of the fourth wall), but he has not pushed his actors to surrender their skills to Brecht's desired "alienation effect". While the central performances are quite well-rendered, all seem quite fully invested in their characters, and the pivotal battle between character and actor -- the foundation of Brecht properly executed -- eludes them.

Gwendolyn Mulamba's Courage is an engaging performance, too pragmatic to be sentimental or sympathetic (and yes, that's a good thing) and with excellent singing to boot. Michael Early captures the Chaplain effectively and Maechi Aharanwa's Kattrin are particularly appealingly. The remainder of the cast is a slightly mixed bag, in which some of the actors clearly overshadow others. What's missing overall is the extra bang that would confront the audience as the play winds down with Kattrin's beating of the drum. What we are left with is an entertaining staging (surprisingly funny at times) that doesn't really achieve the desired effect.

The expansive stage of the HSA theater affords the Classical Theatre of Harlem a terrific canvas on which to limn the conflicts of arms and minds. We have reviewed two previous productions of Mother Courage (links below), the New York one hampered by space and the London one by a peculiarly updated translation. This production steers toward the traditional in language, reserving its updating mostly for the visual elements. The famous cart used here is an ingenious creation -- a sort of non-motorized Winnebago that cracks open to support interior scenes -- and a (manually-operated as well) turntable is used to particularly good advantage. Civilian costumes lean toward a period peasant look, while the soldiers wear vaguely Twentieth Century uniforms (labelled Catholic and Protestant as applicable, and in the latter case cleverly adorned with a Dollar Sign as insignia).

The announced running time is two hours, which may be optimistic for a piece that has been known to last for three. On its opening night, the performance ran a healthy half hour over. My impression is the result would be more satisfying closer to the projected timing.

Another Mother Courage review in NY
Mother Courage in London

Mother Courage and Her Children
by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Eric Bentley
Directed by Christopher McElroen

with Gwendolyn Mulamba, Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Maechi Aharanwa, Jamie Carrillo, Michael Early, Rolando Garcia, Joan Green, Stephen Hansen, Devin Emanuel Haqq, Leopold Lowe, Michael C. O'Day, Parris Wittingham, James Rana and Anna Zastrow
Set Design: Troy Hourie
Costume Design: Kimberly Glennon
Lighting Design: Aaron Black
Sound Design: Matt Kraus
Choreographer: Bruce Heath
Composer/Musical Director: William "Spaceman" Patterson
Video Designer: Elaine McCarthy
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
A production of The Classical Theatre of Harlem
HSA Theater, 645 St. Nicholas Ave. (near 141st Street)
Telephone (212) 868-4444
WED - SAT @8, SUN @3; $19
Opening February 6, 2004, closing February 29, 2004
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 2/6/04 performance

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