Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mother Courage and Her Children - Theatre Vertigo - Portland, Oregon

"Mercenary Madness"

Mother Courage… by Bertolt Brecht and translated by Tony Kushner (Angels In  America) plays at theatre vertigo through November 17th.  It is directed by John Steinkamp with original music by Joseph Appel.  Contact them for more info at www.theatrevertigo.org or call 503-306-0870.

Brecht, a German Expressionist writer during the early 1900’s, was disillusioned by many things:  War, Religion, the Military, and Society, in general.  What he seemed to be in favor of was—survival.  Survival at any cost.  His Mother Courage seems to be the epitome of that philosophy.

The story is about a mercenary, Mother Courage (Paige Jones), and her wagon of  wares, that is her survival kit, during the religious wars that swept across Europe during the 1600’s.  With her are her three children, Eilif (Mario Calcagno), the eldest and cleverest, Swiss Cheese (Robert Wyllie), the youngest and a little simple, and her daughter, Kattrin (Brooke Fletcher), a  mute.

They encounter the various opposing forces during the war and she sells to each, after all, she is an equal-opportunity-mercenary.  She befriends a few, like the Cook (Jason Glick) to one of the Generals, a man with an agenda of his own; a Chaplin (Matt Kerrigan), who  changes allegiances as it suits his purpose; and Yvette (Karen Wennstrom), a prostitute, playing with both sides of the  fence.  In short, they all know how to survive.

The War takes a tragic toll on Mother Courage’s family.  But she, undaunted, traverses the shell-shocked countryside in search of the next meal, monies, more goods for her wagon, sometimes even just for a decent conversation.  The brief respites of Peace seem to breed no real change in her world.  But she, like Mother Earth, will endure.  She does not fight the climate of change but embraces it, as just another challenge in an ever-changing map.  She  will survive and we are glad of it.

The most striking thing to me about this production is the use of space.  Mr. Steinkamp has, with very few set and props pieces, takes us on a trek across time and space, that is totally believable.  He has, with the swinging of a gate, changing the position of the wagon, or putting up a curtain, taken our imagination of a roller-coaster journey.  And the wagon, which is as much of a character in the show as any of the actors, is a marvel, thanks to Scenic Designer, Ryan Nicolai.

Except for the main characters already mentioned, the cast is an ensemble piece, and they are all very good at changing gears when necessary.  But at the heart of it is Mother  Courage, who must  be the driving  force in the production.  And Ms. Jones is just such a whirlwind!  As good as the other actors are, she commands the stage, as the character should.  She embodies Courage and is unwavering in the choices she makes, and gives us a view of a person that will overcome every obstacle and survive all tragedies.

Equally as good is Ms. Fletcher as her mute daughter.  She has an amazing ability to give complete focus to all the situations onstage.  And she can successfully communicate, with no real dialogue, what she is feeling, just through her expressions.  A talent any actor can envy.

The original music (Joseph Appel) and musicians are good and is a backdrop for spoken dialogue.  It underscores it well and is part of the storytelling atmosphere of the show.  One should be warned that there are adult situations and harsh language in the show and the running time is about three hours.  But the time is well spent.  If you see it, tell them Dennis sent you.