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A Courageous Attempt

Mother Courage Directed by 'led Osius At the Loeb Mainstage, April 7-16

By Kathleen I. Kouril

NO ONE EVER said staging a play by Bertolt Brecht would be anything but demanding. Perhaps it's the lure of this challenge that's led to so many Brechtian productions at Harvard lately. Some of these have been successful like Peter Sellars' elegant and effective "das Kleine Mahagonny." Director Ted Osius leads his players in a valiant effort to stage Mother Courage. Brecht's anti-war masterpiece Clearly, he works with a devoted cast. However, staging a play by Brecht is a bit like walking a tightrope--it requires that a cast be teetering at all times, almost off-balance. The Harvard-Radcliffe Drama Club production teeters a bit too much.

Part of the difficulty results from Brecht's unusual type of theater. Brecht rejected the classical tradition and what he called "dramatic" an "Wagnerian" theater, like religion, overwhelmed audiences drugged them with emotions, and made them passive spectators in term of the theater and in terms of history.

Brecht's theory, which he called "Epic" theater, involves incorporating the audience into the production by leaving them somewhat detached and thus more capable of learning a lesson from the play. The Brechtian audience ideally should leave the theater saying not, "Wow, that was a moving play," but rather. "I have never thought about them that was before" Brecht armed to achieve this effect by alternating his audience through stage techniques like pantomime, signboards which reveal the plot prematurely and thus kill the suspense and often through peculiar Kurt Wcill songs steamy or jazzy cabaret numbers about the most serious subjects.

Mother Courage is a demanding play to yet another degree. For this is the play that got away from Brecht the play that unlike The Threepennv Opera Or The Good-Women of Setzuan, transcended Brecht's theories of theater and look on a life of its own. The final scene in which Mother Courage's mute daughter climbs to a rooftop and beats a drum to warn a nearly town of the approaching enemy can be one of the most moving scenes in post-modern drama. Because of its emotional force it almost disproves its creator's theories In that way it could be much like the ART's recent production of Waiting For Godot--a performance so stirring it denied Beckett's extended assertion.

WHILE IT IS CLEAR that director Osius knows his Bercht, it is also clear that he underestimates the intricacy of this particular Brechtian work. The HRDC's Mother Courage succeeds on the first levels it incorporates all of the Brechtian techniques of alienation and it leaves the audience feeling detached and thoughtful. However it does not succeed on that more tenuous level of which Brecht would probably disapprove--it is not haunting.

This is not for lack of effort Osius along with set designer Steve O'Donnell and graphics designer Gino Lee have come up with one elegant set. A white screen framed by bronze--like the black canvas of an as-yet unpainted portrait of a war hero-provides the backdrop for the simple set, a battlefield-like void. This screen provides an ingenious mechanism for utilizing Brechtian techniques. Plot summaries are flashed on the screen before each scene slides projected onto the screen change the setting in the blink of an eye. The screen also enables Osius a clever conceit: he presents his play in the context of a Holly wood-style epic. At the end of the play, the audience sees credits on the screen rather than a row of bowing actors. It is unfortunate, however, when a device--in this case, a film clip of battle scenes from Olivier's "Henry V"--elicits more of a response from the audience than the play itself.

The cast is impressive nonetheless. Holly Swartz, as Mother Courage, carries off one of the most demanding female roles in the theater with aplomb and grace. Peter Becker, as the chaplain who argues that a war is all right as long as it's a religious war, is very professional and completely winning. Praise must go as well to Michael Allio, Christopher Moore and Deborah Wasser. But without a doubt, the big surprise in this cast is Kattrin, played by the lovely Brigit Fasolino. Her face is just right--a picture of peace, shell-shocked, ravaged, yet innocently eerie. In the very best production of this work, the character of Kattrin has been likened to Aristophanes' character Peace, who, though raped and tortured by war, remains virtuous and beautiful. Fasolino's Kattrin speaks volumes in her muteness and screams and silent scream at the close of the play. It is she who salvages this production's otherwise disastrous rooftop scene.

The production shortchanges some of the most famous scenes of Mother Courage--"The Song of Capitulation," "Solomon's Song"--but it does have its moments. Peter Becker's "Son of the Hours" is splendid, as are some of the comic interludes. And Mother Courage makes far better use of that enormous Mainstage space than did Agamemnon and some of the other undergraduate disasters of years past.

Yet while avoiding the usual pitfalls, this production falls instead into the Brechtian chasm. Were it any other play by Bertolt Brecht, this director and this cast could have produced something special. One can't fault them for choosing a hard nut to crack, and indeed, the play might shine with some more polishing. In any case, such a talented director and superb cast deserve a look.

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