Written by Megan Sweigert
The room is still. Silent. No fidgeting, no coughing, no sniffling . All focus. All watching. No one dares break the silence. Everything that was once important goes out the window. If you’ve got an itch, it’s forgotten. You hold your hands still. If your leg cramps, it can wait. You dare not re-cross your legs. If you have to breathe, you do it slowly, quietly; even the ballooning of your lungs seems loud and disruptive. The beating of your heart slows, it listens with you, watches with you. Every muscle, bone, sinew is still and dedicated to one thing. This kind of stillness is a magical thing, and it is only possible in two situations. The first is a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek (and I don’t know about you, but after about age ten my hide-and-seek playing sort of petered out). The second is in a theater, and since my hide-and-seek days, I have only experienced it a handful of times. At least three of those times were Thrusday night at Theater Vertigo’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children.
Now let me start by saying that Mother Courage and Her Children is no small play. It spans twelve years, with 26 characters. Bertolt Brecht and Tony Kushner (who is responsible for this beautiful translation) left director John Steinkamp with a play that runs approximately three hours. When you see this play, be sure to be well fed, and hydrated (but not so hydrated that you have to leave the theater before intermission). I understand that most of us aren’t used to making this large of a commitment when going to see theater, but have courage. Steinkamp, with the steady hand of simplicity, has created a tight, precise show that earns every magical moment of stillness.
The staging is impeccable. Steinkamp transports us all over Europe with Ryan Nicolai’s cleverly designed set: a large wagon and a wooden gate. This is a case where less is more. Steinkamp keeps it simple. The stage is small and mostly empty. Set dressings are carried on and off by actors when needed. In the back corner is a single door, and off to one side, sit the three musicians – Joseph Appel (composer and performer), and AnnaPaul and the Bearded Lady, a local vintage jazz group. Like everything in this play, the music has a restricted palate, precise in mood and tone. It is repetitive and cyclical, making you feel like you’re stuck on a twisted merry-go-round carrying you ever closer to Mother Courage’s tragic destiny. It beautifully highlights the dreadful cycle of war that carries through this play. The costumes, designed by Jim Crino, are not flashy, mostly neutral deep tones and heavy materials that weigh down on the actors as war and poverty weigh down on the characters. The lights, designed by JD Sandifer, are subtle and affective, accentuating the haggard feel to the stage and characters.
Steinkamp keeps so religiously to his simple aesthetic through most of his show, that when he breaks these conventions, it is incredibly powerful. When suddenly, the music takes on a totally different style and tone, you know you have to listen in a different way. When a woman enters wearing bright red shoes, you know they’re important. When an actress suddenly breaks the horizontal playing space you’ve become accustomed to and clambers up above the door in the back corner, you have to watch her.
The sound design (Richard E Morre) leaves us with something of an enigma. The recorded sound effects being projected from beneath the seats disconcerted me. I’m unsure why I’m expected to believe in the fire on stage when I’m hearing the crackling of the kindling behind my legs, or what is served by looping the sound of men yelling in an attempt to create the din of battle in the distance. In these instances I’d rather my imagination do the work; I had no problem believing the pantomime food and liquid. However, despite the feeble recorded sound cues, there are many sonically beautifully moments in this play. These, more often than not, revolve around the mute character, Kattrin (Brooke Fletcher)– played with much ferocity, strength and heart. One of the most difficult feats for an actor is the task of portraying the needs, thoughts, feelings and life of a character without words. Kattrin’s entire character is based on her actions, and Ms. Fletcher brings a vibrant life to the stage with each and every action – which brings me back to the points of sonic wonder. They all occur at moments when Kattrin takes the stage and the scene. Through the dim nervous blubberings of her mother (portrayed by Paige , who bravely carries the weight of this heavy play on her shoulders) cuts the aggressive sound of pumice scraping knife, as Kattrin communicates all her dissatisfaction through a singular action. Over the din of frustrated soldiers and farmers comes the pounding of Kattrin on a drum and her frenzied laugh – a powerful, disturbing sound after her long silence. Then a gunshot. Then silence. A silence that permeates your every pore.
These striking moments are at the heart of what this show has to offer. The brave cast trudges through the mire of war to offer brief moments of clarity. Go see Mother Courage and Her Children on the Arena Stage at Theatre Theater.