The theater gods smiled on the beginning of the sixth scene of Shakespeare & Company’s Mother Courage and Her Children Saturday afternoon. Mother Courage (Olympia Dukakis) greeted the return of the long-absent Cook (John Douglas Thompson) and offered him some brandy from her traveling wagon of goods for war.
But Mother Courage could not find the brandy. She dug through the packets and pockets and sacks and barrels and casks of the wagon but could not find the bottle of brandy no matter how urgently she called for it. Soon the Cook helped, even beseeching the audience, asking if there was any brandy at the concession stand. Brecht’s “alienation effect” kicked into a higher gear. “Do you have some brandy? Do you?” the Cook asked individuals in the audience. “Someone will bring us some brandy,” Mother Courage finally bellowed skyward.
A woman in 17th-century costume from stage right brought two mugs, but they evidently were not brandy mugs, and still the Cook and Mother Courage sought the brandy until the Older Soldier (Michael F. Toomey) bravely brought the missing bottle of brandy from off stage left, and all cheered, especially Thespis, Thalia, and Dionysus. “We’ll back it up a little” Dukakis said, sotto voce, to the front rows, and repeated the scene, finding the brandy immediately this time.
But the spell wasn’t entirely broken. These two actors had established these two characters (who) on a battlefield between battles (time and place) really wanted something (intention) and they actually felt annoyed, angry, exasperated, bemused, overjoyed (emotions) for the first time that afternoon—over that newly found brandy bottle “I’m ruined,” Mother Courage said of her almost-depleted supply of goods to sell to soldiers. “Well, we got brandy” Cook said, smiling, and the audience laughed with the pair again. The staging and acting here were perfect, a stroke of genius that connected audience, actors, characters, and the play’s theme: What won’t we do for brandy?
While Mother Courage and Her Children is lauded as “one of the greatest plays of the 20th century,” as the press releases state, Brecht’s political dramaturgy creates mind-bending irony for theater companies dependent on funding from the very class of people and society whose hypocrisy Brecht lays bare in the play. The play tasks theaters and audiences even when the best of talent tackles Mother Courage. A play written in 1939 just as Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland spread war across Europe, revised by Brecht after World War II, adapted into English by Eric Bentley (Brecht’s assistant director for the first German production) in 1958, set in “the 30 Years War” in Europe of the first half of the 17th century, espousing Brecht’s iconoclastic views not just on society but the very structures of theater, will pose difficulties.
So often Mother Courage and Her Children ends up being Brussels-sprout theater: supposedly great for you, but tough to swallow, taste and smell, and not so exciting to see.
Except when the brandy’s missing. Brecht’s alienation effect brings the audience into a comedy, not the desired effect Brecht stated in writing he wanted for his didactic polemics, but a quality that serves comedy well: We, actor and audience, are in this reality together. It’s a play, and we all want the missing brandy. We need it. There are laughs on the Tina Packer Playhouse stage. There are lessons here. There are lots of lessons here. There are too damned many lessons here. Some people profit from war while other people die. Acting is not lying with enthusiasm or declaring with clear diction. At times oddly sentimental, Shakespeare & Company’s Mother Courage and Her Children needs more missing brandy to be a great production of Brecht’s second-best play.