When one produces a standard work in the theatre canon, it is always with the intention of finding a new way in, of opening fresh or particularly relevant doors for the audience. Such an approach encourages the actors and designers to take chances, and gives the audience the expectation that it is worthwhile seeing the same play more than once over the years. Familiar as I am with Brecht’s work, I have never seen a staging of this play before; although I have seen the television production of Meryl Streep rehearsing the title role for Broadway, and I have seen numerous production stills of various interpretations. I certainly approached this production with high expectations; and in many ways, I was not disappointed.
As the script ages, expository details such as costumes, set, sound, lighting and actors’ gestures and expressions become increasingly necessary to clarify or illuminate aging words or moribund phrases or political concerns. Program notes give background. All this is in aid of educating the audience so that the text can work on its own terms.
With that in mind, I was really impressed by the costume design and execution for this production. Peasant costumes were so natural and had an amazing ability to drape in such a way that virtually any moment could have been captured by a painter as a dramatic, carefully designed instant. In contrast, the military uniforms and a rumpled rigidity that expressed the grotesquerie and dispassionate force of war.
The set operated on several levels, both subliminal and real: the mirror-like stage floor surface gave the action and epic other-worldly aspect which was particularly evident around the wagon. The wagon deserves comment: it was intriguingly detailed yet spartan in its execution, stating with absolute clarity Mother Courage’s situation on the edge of destitution. The use of seven pianos as a major set element was a powerful device that established walls, a funeral cortège, and was reflected in the structure of the barn in which the pathetic Katrin meets her heroic but ignoble end. The movement and use of the pianos was striking and often symbolic, in keeping with the music that is so stirring in this play.
I was particularly struck by Geordie Johnson as a cook. His “Solomon” song lifted the whole production into Brecht’s uber realm. He sang with emphasis and precision in a superb baritone that really sounded the way you expect a Brecht production to sound.
I was really puzzled by Tanja Jacobs’ Mother Courage. There were so many times that she sat or stood passively while other actors held the stage, and occasionally she seemed completely domitable. Although at times she took command of the stage, she never seemed to take chances with the role. Maybe internalizing the character was the chance she was taking. It just did not work for me. I did not care about the character. We have to care about Mother Courage—or what is the play about?
Jani Lauzon was very effective as Yvette Pottier. This may be one of the problems with the production: Yvette was played as a stronger character than Mother Courage. In the scene in which she negotiates the purchase of the wagon, she is the strong character without breaking a sweat. I hate to suggest she tone down the role, as I thought she played it perfectly.
The final moments of the production, with the entrance of the marching soldiers and the drums was striking and effective. There were many really effective elements in the production that were the product of co-ordination of the ensemble and the designers and artists. Altogether impressive.
Once again, the company performed wonderfully, especially Matt Miwa, who had to step into the role of Swiss Cheese in place of Nial Patrick McNeil.
I hope the 40th Anniversary English Theatre Acting Company continues, as the quality of production has been very high indeed. It is important that we see works of this stature in our National Theatre, just as it is important that we see groundbreaking new works by Canadian playwrights. I congratulate Peter Hinton on his vision and enterprise; I earnestly hope that he will continue in this direction.
Performance viewed: January 23 7:30 pm running time: 3 hours, 3 minutes including 20 min intermission
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The National Arts Center English Theatre Company presents
Bertoldt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children
in new version by Peter Hinton
Tanja Jacobs: Mother Courage
Michael Blake: Eilif
Waneta Storms: Katrin
Matt Miwa: Swiss Cheese
Richard Donat: Chaplin
Geordie Johnson: Cook
Jani Lauzon: Yvette Pottier
Randi Helmers: Drunk Soldier/OldWoman/Wife
Kris Joseph: Swedish Soldier/Soldier in Fur Coat/Lieutenant
Ron Kennell: Recruiting Officer/The Man with the Eye Patch
John Koensgen: Protestant Sergeant/Old Colonel/Peasant
Julie Tamiko Manning: Wounded Woman
Matthew Tapscott: Armourer/Scrivener
Jeremiah Sparks: Catholic Sergeant
Nisha Ahuja: Yvette’s Servant
Alex McCooeye: Young Soldier
Members of the Company: Musicians/Soldiers
Peter Hinton: Director
Allen Cole: Music Director and Arranger
Paula Danckert: Dramaturgy
Stephen Ouimette: Assistant Director
Teresa Pryzbylski: Set and Costume Design
Jock Munro: Lighting Design
Troy Slocum: Sound Design
David Dean: Company Historian
John Koensgen: Fight Captain
David Petersen: Assistant to Mr. McNeil
Michael Hart: Stage Manager
Jane Vanstone Osborn: Assistant Stage Manager
Samira Rose: Rehearsal Assistant Stage Manager
Stéfanie Seguin: Rehearsal Assistant Stage Manager