Best Brecht in Town at Seattle Shakes
Seattle Shakespeare Company, opened a spectacular production of one of the most celebrated and visionary plays of Bertholt Brecht: Mother Courage and her Children at Seattle Center on Friday. Written in exile in 1939, right after the Nazi invasion of Poland, its theme warns the profiteers of war that they themselves will not be spared its disasters no matter how crafty they are. Its setting, the 30-Year’s War, a long drawn out series of wars in the 17th Century, created untold destruction in German territories and depleted most of Europe economically, not unlike the aftermath of World War II.
The show opens in 1624, six years after the 30-Years War broke out in 1618, when the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor tried to impose Catholicism on his Protestant subjects. With intervals of peace here and there, it raged until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. During which, various European monarchies took advantage of the religious conflicts to seize territory, booty and personally aggrandize themselves.
Ironically, it culminated when Louis XIII of France, a Catholic, intervened on the side of the German Protestants, thereby realizing France’s long-cherished foreign policy aim of extending its Eastern border to the Rhine. As part of the peace settlement, France was awarded the German speaking provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in 1648. Devastating the German states, famine, disease and de-population spread like wildfire. In 1648, it is estimated, that some German states lost three-quarters of their population, others two-thirds, the least was twenty-five percent.
In anticipation of Nazi persecution, as a Marxist and avant-garde artist, Brecht fled Germany about one week after Hitler was elected Chancellor in 1933. His play Mother Courage, served as an acute warning to the German people about the consequences if they sold their souls to the devil of Nazism, in exchange for prosperity.
In the play, this collective pact with the devil is enacted individually in the lead character, Anna Fierling or Mother Courage. She is a cynical single woman, who decides to profit from war by selling booze, boots and beef (and a capon here and there) to the soldiers as she travels from country to country, from battle to battle, in her “Canteen Wagon” with her three children. Along the way, she changes her religious allegiances several times. In short, she is a survivor in a corrupt milieu, but is not totally corruptible as she treasures her children. Predictably, the war consumes them, leaving her with nothing but her wagon
There were some outstanding performances especially by Alyssa Keene who stole the show as an ensemble player. Her stellar performance as Yvette, a camp follower, i.e. prostitute, was sensational, she has a velvety speaking voice and her singing reached into the stratosphere. With subtle nuances, she could express volumes in just one word “fraternize”. As the peasant mother trying to save her family she was outstanding. Chad Kelderman as her aged paramour was completely convincing as a physically decrepit old fool. His ability to deliver the dark ironic humor in his various other roles stood out as well. Larry Paulsen, playing a a Protestant chaplain handled the black humor adeptly using his beautiful resonating voice.
Jeff Steitzer, the director, wisely choose a recent translation by British playwright David Hare, so that the dialogue was full of modern dry, witty irony, which was fortunate because the script and the direction were so fool-proof that the less than stellar performance of the lead actor, Jeanne Paulsen as Anna Fierling-Mother Courage, did not mar this brilliant production.
Vocally, she could not deliver the subtle, ironic humor as her voice had very little nuance and color, plus her diction was muddled and even sitting in the second row, many of her lines were incomprehensible. Even though the singing style for Epic Theatre is not meant to make the audience emotionally identify with the character as in grand opera, Ms. Paulsen was not much of a singer and could not nail the precise language-based humor in her songs.
Jeff Steitzer managed to assemble a highly accomplished technical team; set designer Craig B. Wollam design’s were just what was needed for Epic theatre, suggestive, but not realistic, and with 12 scenes, it took a lot of creativity to keep things moving. The costumes designed by Doris Black were first-rate, especially Alyssa Keene’s costume as Yvette the tramp and then her re-incarnation as an overdressed and overfed “Mrs. Colonel.”
In plays about war, sound and lightning can be very tricky, on the one hand the director has to make it clear that battles are taking place, but should not overpower the actors, or be overly unpleasant for the audience. The collaboration of Steitzer as director, Rick Paulsen as Lighting Designer and Sound Designers Nathan Wade and Jay Weinland added just the right touches. The battles were fearful, but did not instill enough fear that I wanted to flee the theatre.
In terms of 20th Century German Theatre, Brecht is indeed the Shakespeare of his day, he towers over all his contemporaries, and his influence on European and American Theatre is enormous. In my opinion, this production fortunately lacked the extremely heavy, didactic, humorless touch of most of the Brecht productions I have seen in Germany.
Since one does not see his plays performed very much in Seattle. I would rush out immediately and get tickets before it sells out. Und machen Sie, bitte, schnell!!
Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertold Brecht. Seattle Shakespeare Company. Center House Theatre, Seattle Center 305 Harrison, Seattle 98109. Wed-Sat 7:30, Sun 2pm. Thru Nov 22. Tickets: http://www.seattleshakespeare.org/season-and-tickets/