Bertolt Brecht is having quite a month on New York stages. First there’s the Jean Cocteau Repertory’s production of Mother Courage, in a never-before-seen translation by Marc Blitzstein – see our review of this excellent show, which will jar you in a good way, after the jump. Then there’s Ralph Lee’s adaptation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which is playing at the Garden of St. John the Divine. Lee is a puppet artist, so his creations stalking through that beautiful setting, acting out Brecht’s retelling of a folk tale about a peasant girl who raises a baby of noble birth that was abandoned, are likely to make for a striking vision. Finally, the Creative Mechanics company is performing Edward II at the Bank Street Theatre beginning today (photo at right). Like Mother Courage, this play has to do with the effects of war on society, but here it is shown through the never-dull life of the eponymous king of England. The company’s production of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher got raves last year, so we have high hopes for this one.
Brecht has nothing on Shakespeare, of course, since something by the Bard is perpetually on at least a couple of stages. This week is the last for Shakespeare in the Park’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona (a sad indication of the ending of summer). Gothamist has to admit that despite our love of free shows, we still haven’t made it, but we wish we had made it to this spirited musical adaptation from 1971, and if you haven’t, you should definitely brave the lines and see it before it closes Sunday.
An alternative, in case you want to revel in the gorgeous weather while it lasts but already saw or don’t care to see Two Gentlemen, would be Shakespeare in the Industrial Park’s Macbeth, playing on the roof of OfficeOps in East Williamsburg and setting the play in a post-apocalyptic Scotland, though retaining the original dialogue. With a large cast of eighteen and such a nontraditional stage, it sounds like this could make the play even livelier than it usually is with all its wonderful gore and insanity.
To take a line from infomercials: but wait, there’s more! The Shakespeare Project, with Play Outside and the New Perspectives Theatre Company, is doing free performances of Romeo & Juliet in different parks around the city (take that, end of summer!). Melody Brooks, the director, isn’t taking the kind of liberties either of the other two shows take, so if you want your Shakespeare straight up, this is the one for you. Plus, since the show is hitting all 5 boroughs, you can choose when to go so you don’t have to travel too far, in case you’re lazy like us.
Details: See the review for more on Mother Courage.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle opens Friday and runs through Sept. 18, with performances Fri.-Sun. 7:30pm. The Garden of St. John the Divine is at Amsterdam Ave. and 111th St. Call 212-929-4778 for tickets.
Edward II opens today and runs through Sept. 25 with performances Thurs.-Sat. 8pm, Sat. 2pm and Sun. 3pm. The Bank Street Theatre is at 155 Bank St.; tickets are available through Smarttix.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is at 8pm each evening through Sun. at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park (enter at 81st St.). Free tickets are distributed at 1pm the day of the show at the Delacorte and from 1-3pm at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette).
Macbeth opens Saturday at 3pm and plays Sat.-Sun. at 3pm through 10/2, weather permitting. OfficeOps is at 57 Thames St. in Brooklyn. Tickets available through Smarttix.
Romeo & Juliet plays next a week from now, on Thurs. 9/15 at Sunset Park in Brooklyn. See the official website for the schedule of remaining performances through 9/24.
Review of Mother Courage
Mothers in wartime have been a hot topic lately, needless to say, so the Jean Cocteau Rep production of Mother Courage, Brecht’s play about a woman during the 30 Years’ War (1618-1648) seems even more timely than it might have. Except, of course, for the fact that the titular mother makes her living off the war, so her unwillingness to send her children to fight is somewhat less poignant. Plus her character, as played by the remarkable Lorinda Lisitza, is so fearsome that you just kind of cower in your seat as she terrorizes everyone onstage, including the children she’s supposedly looking out for. Still, it’s hard not to sympathize with her anyway because of the way she represents the little guy, the peasant who bears all the pain of a war for which the causes are never mentioned and the “sides” are more or less irrelevant. Mother Courage may technically be a war profiteer, but she’s hardly profiting – as Lisitza’s fiery performance makes clear, she’s just savagely defending her life and family, as any living creature with the means to do so will.
This translation of the play was done in 1957 by Marc Blitzstein; it was supposed to be staged the next year and directed by Orson Welles, but it didn’t happen then and hasn’t until now, with David Fuller as director. There is quite a lot of music – 12 full songs and some shorter arrangements – which was mostly written by Paul Dessau for Brecht’s original production. The songs are far from uplifting or catchy like a real musical’s, though even after the depressing finale you might find yourself leaving the theater murmuring the dirgelike main chorus, “Springtime is come; wake up, you bum.” That phrase shows just a little of Blitzstein’s effort to use modern (OK, fifties-modern) English to approximate Brecht’s rough language; it situates you clearly among the rabble who are the main characters.
In case you’re still not sure what the play is about, well, there’s really not much more to it than Mother Courage and her diminishing family pulling their concession stand all around northern Europe, running into soldiers now and then, usually starving even when they’re able to sell whiskey and clean shirts to the troops and even when Mother Courage is being courted by a cook (Seth Duerr). She starts out with three children, but the eldest boy is quickly packed off to war (no good end can come from that, of course), the other son (improbably named Holey Cheese and played with just the right note of innocent piety by Timothy McDonough) is captured and killed somewhat later, and the daughter, Kattrin (Sara Jeanne Asselin), is mute but has an amazing spirit, even if she only really shows it at her bitter ending. The cast overall is excellent: except for Asselin, Duerr, and Lisitza, the other actors all have multiple roles, and they shine in the exertion of turning rapidly from one perspective to another. Taylor Wilcox, in particular, does a great job gender-bending as various soldiers and officers.
Shows at the Cocteau always have smart, well-executed sets and costumes, one of the benefits of being an older company with a longtime home; one aspect of this production that is especially commendable is the lighting, which is both expressive and harsh, accentuating the lines in Lisitza’s face and making the bleakness of the Polish winters come alive without the need for fake snow. The whole show, really, is quite in-your-face, led by Lisitza’s ruthless Mother – but unlike a lot of political plays coming out now, it doesn’t demand that you be a Bush-hater and vocal opponent of the war in Iraq. For sure, there are points in Mother Courage, especially when the army comes a-recruitin’, where it’s easy to find sad modern parallels, but unless you just love war it’s hard to miss the central point Brecht wanted to make, and does make via this worthy show – that when you ask who war is good for, the answer is never “regular people who are just trying to get by.” One look at Mother Courage’s weary face will tell you that.
Details: Mother Courage is at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre (330 Bowery) through Oct. 8. Performances are Wed. 7pm, Thurs.-Sat. 8pm, Sun. 3pm. Tickets are available through TicketCentral.
Photo by Rachel Macklin.