The stage setting looks like footage of the recent civil war in Bosnia. A guard tower is manned by a bearded soldier, and the background is a gray and black curtain, torn and dirty.
No raising of the main curtain, no trumpet fanfare, not even a dimming of the house lights opened the Saturday evening performance of this term's mainstage play, "Mother Courage and Her Children."
The soldier simply walks on stage and begins one of the typical narrative monologues that Bertolt Brecht uses between scenes.
It is minimal theater. Brecht begins by reducing the action you are about to see to three sentences of description. Then the action unfolds.
The script calls for the Thirty Years' War in central Europe which took place during the 17th century. However, the costumes were a combination of Robin Hood England and World War I uniforms. Adding to the conflict was the use of Vietnam War-era automatic rifles.
Despite the beautifully-made costumes, Brecht's message of the destructiveness of war, of its utter dissolution of the human soul certainly shines through. No one grows, no one changes -- the characters only regress to their most animalistic, their most cruel state.
Because spiritual growth isn't what is needed for survival. Or, in Brecht's own words, "That war, which is a continuation of business by other means, makes the human virtues fatal even to their possessors."
This is the story of a businesswoman, Anna Fierling, known as Mother Courage (performed by Drama Professor Mara Sabinson), and her attempts to provide for her three children Eilif (David Harbour '97), Swiss Cheese (Caleb Scott '97) and Kattrin (Skye Gurney '99). Courage runs a provisions cart and follows the troops from battle to battle.
Her eldest son Eilif is quickly tempted to join the army and soon becomes a psychopathic killer, much to the delight of the company general. Swiss Cheese later joins up as pay master.
It is Kattrin, the mute, who stays with her mother, along with a priest, when they are captured by the Catholics. Of course that does not help her avoid her brothers' fate as all the children are killed. One after the other, they are executed by the machinery and the confusion of war.
Obviously this is not inspiring or particularly uplifting. In fact, the general mood was so depressing that many left during the intermission.
Those who stayed were treated to more of the first half -- more death, more anger, more frustration.
Part of the frustration is in seeing the individual efforts of the actors overcome by a lack of cohesion of the whole. There are moments when one person stands out, but in general the cast simply doesn't mesh.
This may well be because of the odd man out, or in this case, the odd woman. Sabinson, in the lead role of Mother Courage, is the only non-student in the cast of the play.
It seems like she is only half involved with the production at times. This is a shame, because the role of Mother Courage has much possibility.
However, one never feels an emotional bond to the character as portrayed by Sabinson, which spoils much of the effect that Brecht was trying to achieve.
Further, her inability to project during the musical pieces makes it impossible to hear exactly what she is saying, a situation exasperated by her beating a loud tambourine throughout the program.
Some of this was overcome by the amazingly effective performance of Gurney as Kattrin. Playing a mute, her inability to communicate the important events she has witnessed is very heartrending. Her triumph at the final climax is one of the truly effective moments of the play.
Also excellent were Harbour, playing Eilif, Courage's elder son, and Brenda Withers '00 as Yvette. Eilif's descent into sociopathy is stunning and quite extreme, while Yvette's conversion from a prostitute to baroness is completely opposite.
But these bits of perfection do not add up to a cohesive whole. A two-and-a half hour production can either leave you glued to your seat or looking at your watch. This one, unfortunately, was the latter.