Mother Courage and Her Children at the University of Houston: A Courageous Undertaking

The setup:

Mother Courage and Her Children is acclaimed as Bertolt Brecht's best play, often described as an antiwar play but more accurately labeled by Brecht as an anti-business play. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of Anna, a woman with three adult children who peddles wares from a cart and struggles to survive during a 30-year war. It is the best example of Brecht's concept of "Epic Theatre," in which illusion is destroyed and the audience is meant to respond to ideas, as opposed to audience emotional involvement and catharsis.

The execution:

Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, has adapted the play but has stayed true to Brechtian concepts, as has the director at the University of Houston, Keith Byron Kirk. This is wise, as the production thus becomes a valuable rendering of a theatrical point of view deemed important by many. But what we gain in authenticity, we lose in impact -- one scene is played behind a large cart, as desired by Brecht. Suspense is not sought, as a narrator tells us what is about to happen. I wondered at lost lighting opportunities, until I recalled that Brecht wants bright lights, lest lighting enhance or permit emotions. In a sense, Epic Theater is anti-theater; it is deliberately polemical and didactic, and wishes to persuade without tricking us with emotion. One can only ask: why?

The acting is in most cases wonderful. Kevin Lusignolo plays a cook who travels for a while with Anna, and sometimes serves as narrator, and Lusignolo's deliberate delivery, and powerful voice create an authentic human we can understand and identify with. Joshua Kyle Hoppe is superb as a chaplain who travels with Anna -- he gives a nuanced, compelling performance. All three of Anna's children are excellent. As Eilif, her son tempted by the glory of war, Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott is brilliant in capturing first the gullibility of a recruit and then buying into the glory of war with a swagger. Miguel Angel Garcia plays Swiss Cheese, the quieter son, and does well, though Brecht has not given him a breakout scene. Kristin Rice portrays the daughter, Kattrin, who is mute but is permitted one scream. Her pantomime is eloquent, and she is permitted the one moment of true drama, and heroism, as she alerts a town. Susie Parr is excellent as an attractive camp follower, and gets appropriate laughs with body language.

The role of Anna is portrayed by Shannon Hill, and she is one of a long line of skilled actors, including Meryl Streep, who have failed in the role. Streep tried to save it in 2006 by giving what must be the busiest performance of the century, with twitching shoulders, raised eyebrows, broad gestures, shifting gaze, arms in the air, scowls, smiles and much more, all within a brief minute. It was a valiant attempt. Hill looks too young to have three adult children -- makeup would have helped -- and she gives a performance without shading or variety. The role may be impossible to succeed in, as Brecht's Anna is pedestrian, plebeian, with no poetry in her soul -- she is, in short, a businesswoman, a peddler of secondhand goods. She is a manipulator, and Hill and director Kirk fail to highlight this element. Anna haggles, yes, once to a fatal end, but we never see the depth of her mercenary drive; Hill finds the behavior, but not the need.

The play is filled with irony, and considerable humor, and the three hours pass more swiftly than they might, thanks to the high level of acting. "Epic Theater" can also mean slow and ponderous, but the many set changes are handled adroitly, and the set by Frankie Teuber manages to be interesting, while sticking to the Brechtian canon of large and not natural, though I detected a welcome hint of the contour of an Egyptian pyramid that Teuber may have slipped in. The exception to Brechtian fidelity is that the cart is a nonworking dilapidated car. The change adds nothing of interest, and undermines the theme of whether the progressively dwindling cart inhabitants can still pull it. The entire endeavor, with a cast of 20, some in multiple roles, is normally daunting -- one reason this famous work is seldom done. So the real hero of the production is the University of Houston, which has mounted a skilled and entertaining production while adhering so closely to the playwright's intention. Now, that is courage!

The verdict:

A seldom seen but acclaimed and important play is brought to vibrant life by skilled acting, and provides an exciting chance to digest some theatrical history while being entertained lavishly. See it!

Mother Courage and Her Children continues through Nov. 4 at the Wortham Theatre, University of Houston, 133 Wortham. For ticketing or information, call 713-743-2929.

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