Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
The Acting Company of the Juilliard School is currently in the business of bringing Brecht to the boondocks. The group bills itself as "the only permanent touring professional repertory company in the United States," and its production of Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" is surely a welcome addition to the theatrical life of many of the towns on the company's tour.
Ford's Theatre, however, is not a high school gym in some theater-staved community. The Acting Company has made no apparent attempt to expand the bare bones of its traveling show for Ford's, which is normally one of the most hospitable auditoriums in the area. "Mother Courage" at Ford's plays flat and falls flat.
"Flat" is not used loosely here. Most of this epic tale, which crisscrosses Europe as we follow a ragged peddler and her children through 12 years of the 30 Years War, is confined to one-third of the Ford's stage - the center strip from one side of the proscenium to the other. Occasionally Mother Courage's wagon takes a swing around the back of the stage, but the dandy little apron of the Ford's stage is perversely ignored.
No doubt this is due to the exigencies of a touring company, but those are expensive exigencies in terms of audience appreciation, if not money. Sometimes the speech can't quite make the jump from center stage to our ears. And visually, the actors seem to be inside a long, narrow tube with too many profiles and strings of people across the stage.
The audience must strain too much to hear - and thanks to David Segal's murky lighting, to see - what's going on. This probably was not talked about the "alienation" of the audience.
So what did Brecht have in mind? Director Alan Schneider - the premier Beckett interpreter in the United States - seems to be suggesting that Brecht had Beckett in mind. This is a spare, bleak "Mother Courage." Ming Cho Lee's set is not elaborate, and when a withered tree pops up in the final scene, it clinches the feeling that we're all waiting for Godot. Earlier, there had been enough perplexing pauses in the speech and nervous laughter to feed the same feeling.
Again, maybe touring circumstances have something to do with the desiccated feeling. But whatever the motivation, this "Mother Courage" lacks the social panorama that Brecht requires and Beckett disdains. If Schneider was not thinking Beckett, he must have been feeling Beckett.
This doesn't necessarily spell disaster. Though it made for a meandering first half at Tuesday's opening, the drama of the evening seemed more focused in the second half, and the scene in which mute Kattrin awakens and warns a town of impending attack by beating on her drum was as spellbinding as ever. But its power seemed out to context.
Mary Lou Rosato strutted and swore convincingly as Courage, but her speech was bogged down in the draggy rhythms of the direction. David Schramm's cook projected better than anyone else across the great divide that separated the actors from the audience, and Frances Conroy, Kevin Conroy and Jeffrey Hayenga were well cast as Courage's children.
The most properly schooled acting in the world, however, could not lift this "Courage" into the realm of the last professional "Courage" seen here, Richard Schechner's production at American University. It was a whirlwind. The production at Ford's is a slack little breeze.