There’s no virtue in war. But there is profit — for those ruthless enough to get it.
So preaches Bertolt Brecht in his play “Mother Courage and Her Children,” a new adaptation of which is now running as part of Irondale Ensemble’s Brecht in Exile series. This production, directed and adapted by Jim Niesen, using John Willett’s classic translation, captures some of the spirit of Brecht’s cynical war fable but none of the philosophical or political heft.
Mother Courage (an appropriately brusque Vicky Gilmore, in a knit hat, leather jacket and combat boots), traveling with her three children, is selling goods from a cart during the Thirty Years’ War. There’s Eilif (Nolan Kennedy), her pugnacious elder son who’s recruited as a soldier; Swiss Cheese (Terry Greiss), her honest but dimwitted younger son who becomes an army paymaster; and Kattrin (Jacqueline Joncas), her mute daughter. While peddling her wares over the course of several years, this mother and her family meet soldiers, a cook, a chaplain, a prostitute and a spy, and ultimately her children become direct or indirect casualties of the war she aimed to get rich on.
“Mother Courage” is being produced and staged by Irondale at its space in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a former Sunday school auditorium with chipped walls and giant plaques announcing the Beatitudes, which would have worked for this no-frills play if it weren’t undermined by what precedes it. Before the show, which has been marketed as an immersive experience, audience members can have a drink in the makeshift lobby set up with picnic tables; beer and soft pretzels, courtesy of DSK Brooklyn, are served from a cart in the corner. It’s meant to recall a biergarten, but is more a gimmick than an actual part of the show.
In other words, it looks and feels like any other hipster hangout in Brooklyn.
In his staging, Niesen retains Brecht’s title cards, the expository bits of narrative announcing what will transpire in each of the 12 scenes in this tedious two-and-a-half-hour epic.
There are songs, too, as in Brecht’s original text — exegetic tunes that the characters break into — set to new music by Sam Day Harmet, who performs here with Erica Mancini and Stephen LaRosa. The score — incorporating banjo, guitar, drums, accordion and a synthesizer — begins with a war march before shooting into different genres, from bluegrass to ’80s synth pop and garage rock.
The music’s too chic and eccentric for the production and the actors, who perform on, in and around an unsightly two-level scaffolding structure draped with blankets and curtains (scenic design is by Ken Rothchild).
As for the actors: How can they be critiqued when Brecht wrote an unsentimental play with characters who aren’t meant to be empathized with, who don’t appeal to our hearts but our minds? Of the show’s central brood, the women are most memorable — Gilmore’s despicable Mother Courage and Joncas’s skittish Kattrin, who communicates through a series of fearsome croaks. The rest of the cast — all of whom play several characters — appear most comfortable when they tap into the production’s absurd sense of humor, such as Stephen Cross’s indulgent performance as a clucking, mischievous capon and Michael-David Gordon’s huffing and griping as a weary prostitute named Yvette. Many of the performances feel lethargic, and the cast awkwardly hiccups through the dialogue of even the smallest bits of improvised comedy.
Niesen’s direction flattens an already challenging work of theater that, despite its influence, didn’t quite catch on in the United States, where agitprop and other kinds of homiletic plays are less popular. This “Mother Courage” feels like pedagogy encased in a bubble, isolated from, say, an overseas war — not to mention the political warmongering and consumptive capitalism in our own country.
This production then reads as an indelicate transcription, because Brecht may be stone cold, but that doesn’t mean his work lacks spark. The spark of revolution, that is — though Brecht pioneered the Lehrstück, or “learning play,” his aim wasn’t just to educate but to incite audiences to make change in their society. He wanted his plays to “knock them into shape,” Brecht wrote. Unfortunately, this “Mother Courage” fails to pack a punch.
Mother Courage and Her Children
Through June 5 at Irondale, Brooklyn; irondale.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.