The current production of “Mother Courage and Her Children” at Shakespeare and Company is surely the most irreverent outing of this great play that I have seen.
WHERE: Shakespeare and Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, Mass.
WHEN: Through Aug. 25
HOW MUCH: $95-$15
MORE INFO: (413) 637-3353, shakespeare.org
The director, Tony Simotes, and the show’s star, Olympia Dukakis, have gone to great lengths to explore the humor that lies beneath the somber themes. Arthur Oliver, who designed the costumes, has done his share of lightening the mood of the play by amplifying colors in the costuming that is usually rendered in drab hues of brown and gray.
They have stuck to the period intended by playwright Bertolt Brecht, 1624 to 1636, 12 years of The Thirty Years War — which is also unusual. The play is sometimes placed in the Civil War, or somewhere in the Middle East. In my mind, this is probably as authentic a production as has been presented — and like other Brecht plays, it’s not presented all that much. For that reason, I do recommend it.
The story takes on the difficult task of what Brecht himself named “epic theater.” This is bold, uncompromising, hazardous territory. And, frankly, one is often left deeply dissatisfied with the results. In this latest production, however, the Saturday matinee audience was much entertained and truly engaged. I saw tears in the eyes of nearby audience members and there was laughter throughout.
The saga unfolds as we meet the indomitable canteen woman, Mother Courage, named because she tore through enemy lines to get bread to her soldiers. “The bread was getting moldy,” she explains. “What else could I do?”
Dukakis plays this character with the confidence of an actress who has given Mother Courage several incarnations — five, in fact. Some preshow publicity tells us that she felt she had “one more Mother Courage” left in her. Her last performance of the play was 20 years ago. I did not see that one, but I am guessing it was a tad more energized and a bit less tiring for the actress. I am not quibbling with the interpretation, mind you. It is enough that this great lady has taken on such a mountainous role. It seems only that at times Dukakis strains gamely for the power that is innate in this character — but only at times. She has affecting moments to be sure.
Her scenes with her grown children are fodder for much humor and aching pathos. When she tries to deliver her son Eilif (Josh Aaron McCabe) out of the hands of some wicked recruiters, she is hilariously emasculating. And her reaction to the death of one of her sons is almost unbearable to watch. Her pain is palpable.
The cast is young. “Old” soldiers seem not quite seasoned enough to be called old. And the doubling is often confusing. One young actor is a prisoner until he becomes a sadistic enemy officer. But there are enough fine performances to satisfy even the most jaded of theatergoers.
Paula Langton as the sassy, red-shoe-wearing camp follower, Yvette, is deliciously bawdy and I will tell you that in a few years, she will be the newest and most dynamic Mother Courage ever.