Will we ever stop arguing about Mother Courage and Her Children? From the time Brecht wrote it, in 1939, as Fascism was approaching its orgasm in Europe, until three weeks ago, when Tonya Pinkins announced that she’d quit Classic Stage Company’s production a few days before its scheduled opening, something about the story has inspired extreme behavior among critics, performers, and audiences. Surely Brecht intended to get under people’s skin: Why else give us, in Anna Fierling, a heroine so precariously balanced on the razor’s edge of moral culpability? A two-bit provisioner dragging her cart of beer and belt buckles behind whichever army is winning the Thirty Years’ War at the time, she thinks she is craftily outsmarting evil by profiting from it, even if it eats all three of her children in the process. Hence her “courage” — but the title was meant ironically; Brecht’s point was that even for the poor, accommodation is a tragic illusion. We are meant to be horrified by Courage’s example, not sympathetic.
That was one of Pinkins’s beefs with CSC’s production: that it tried to make a character she saw as a heroic survivor into something much smaller, the victim of self-delusion. She should have taken that beef up with Brecht, because that’s what he wrote. On the other hand, to judge (no doubt unfairly) from the ragged version of the play that opened belatedly tonight, starring a hastily rehearsed Kecia Lewis, she was right to worry about an interpretation that in trying to have it both ways ends up not having it at all. As staged by CSC’s outgoing artistic director Brian Kulick, it is weirdly enervated and unambitious, achieving the coolness and flatness and lack of surprise that Brecht calls for but not, except at a few points, the lively horror to counter it.
At the same time — and this is the source of Pinkins’s other main complaint — Kulick undermines Brecht’s self-consciously alienating dramaturgy by resetting the play in modern Africa, during a protracted civil war. This is accomplished by means of an all-black cast using Central African accents and a set (by Tony Straiges) referencing the camouflage netting of a military encampment. (Confusingly, Courage now has a Jeep, though it’s still called a cart in John Willett’s standard translation, and she still somehow hitches it to herself at the end.) Pinkins complained that this concept, which she presumably approved earlier in the process, ended up reducing the African setting to little more than décor: a way of dressing up Brecht but not a way of exploring black lives. I’m sorry to say she was right; indeed, the effects of the choice are even worse — for the play — than she stated. There’s a reason Brecht set Mother Courage 300 years in the past, during a war that took place in territory familiar to Europeans without invoking specific memories. He was writing a fable, not a documentary. And while resettings of classic plays can often give us a new way to enter the world of the story, in this case (as in versions transposed to 1939) it seems both wrong-headed and desperate, as if acknowledging that the play would not be of interest in its usual clothing, and so required dashikis and head wraps.
Maybe that’s so. I am not a big Brechtian myself, finding the obviousness of his ironies and his refusal of emotional engagement exhausting. But I have seen productions that solve these problems without breaking faith; the Foundry’s recent Good Person of Szechwan, directed by Lear DeBessonet, comes to mind. Perhaps Kulick’s Mother Courage would have gotten closer to that ideal had Pinkins not stormed off, a trail of invective behind her, when it was far too late to rethink anything. (Another cast member, Jacob Ming-Trent, left the production shortly afterward, citing a movie conflict.) So we cannot know what sort of coherence a titanic performer like Pinkins, who had already played a kind of Courage figure in Caroline, or Change, might have brought to even a confused interpretation of the play. But it’s evident in any case that the production was compromised from the start. Duncan Sheik’s original music for the eight or nine songs is pre-recorded and so poorly integrated it sounds as if it were being piped in from the elevator next door. The staging is muddy. And while it is unreasonable to judge Kecia Lewis after just a handful of performances — she’s still learning the blocking and occasionally calling for lines — there’s no getting around the fact that, with one exception, the rest of the cast is hardly more comfortable with the material. That exception is the startling young actress Mirirai Sithole, who plays Courage’s daughter Katrin. If only she is able to make the play’s tragedy legible, that’s in part because only she is spared Brecht’s constant didacticism. Katrin is mute.
Pinkins certainly isn’t, and though her post-departure comments seem to play every card at her disposal, including those of race and gender — Kulick is white — she may have done a service in surfacing some of the buried issues of classic revivals that appropriate “exotic” settings with no intent to explore them. What, after all, would have been wrong with a simple color-blind production of Mother Courage, set as usual in a generic Brechtian past? Or in exploring an African setting more seriously, even at some cost to Brecht’s design? What’s the worst that would have happened? A bad review?
Mother Courage and Her Children is at Classic Stage Company through January 24.