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Theater Review: “Mother Courage and Her Children” at Arena Stage

Kathleen Turner and Molly Smith offer up a rollicking new production of Brecht’s classic.

Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

Who but Kathleen Turner could make Mother Courage sexy? Brecht’s indomitable battle-ax of an anti-heroine has a lot of qualities, but sex appeal isn’t necessarily one of them, even if she can rattle off a list of husbands longer than the inventory log on her cart. Scarred, grizzled, and indomitable, Mother Courage is the great cockroach of 20th-century theater, prevailing long after war has snuffed out everyone else onstage.

And yet put Turner in the role, as Arena Stage’s Molly Smith has done in this rollicking new production of Mother Courage and Her Children, and you instantly get more va-va-voom with your Verfremdungseffekt. Turner’s Mother Courage belts out James Sugg’s songs with all the bravado of a cabaret star and seduces customers and the Cook (Jack Willis) to her cart with the arch of a single eyebrow. Put her in the midst of a war and dress her in a dull brown petticoat with a gray headscarf if you like, but somehow Turner’s Jessica Rabbit will always peek out.

The infamous voice helps, of course, and this time she even sings. Although Turner’s a little shaky in her opening number, she performs admirably throughout the rest of the show, wooing a soldier away from anger in “The Great Capitulation” and rocking her daughter to sleep in a poignant “Lullaby” (accompanied on opening night by distinct sounds of weeping from the audience). Smith’s commissioning of Suggs to write new music for Brecht’s songs was billed as bringing a wold, eccentric, gypsy-inspired sound to the show, a little like New York gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, but what Suggs has dreamed up instead seems to surf the genres of popular music, from a wildly seductive, tango-inspired “Yvette (Song of Fraternization)” sung by the camp prostitute (Meg Gillentine) to the aforementioned lullaby, which wouldn’t feel out of place on a Dixie Chicks album.

The music, along with Turner’s infinite charisma, brings energy by the bushel to Mother Courage, which has its own reputation for lengthiness and frequently requires more endurance from the audience than a Ring Cycle revival. This production uses David Hare’s translation, peppered with profanity and gleefully colloquial in tone—“We’re not under siege, for chrissakes, we’re the f**king besiegers,” shouts a soldier early into the first act—and proceeds with a breakneck pace. At only two and a half hours, it positively flies by.

At first glance, Courage is standing atop her cart like a pageant queen, wheeled onto the stage by her three children: testosterone-fueled Eilif (Nicholas Rodriguez), dummy Swiss Cheese (Nehal Joshi), and mute daughter Kattrin (Erin Weaver). She makes a living by following soldiers during the Thirty-Year War and selling them sundries such as shirts and brandy, all the while doling out topsy-turvy philosophical soundbites about the virtues of war.

The price for this profiteering is living through war itself, which Smith conveys through a soundtrack of bullets, bombs, and shell attacks, usually when they’re least expected. There’s no logic behind the fighting, which frequently seems to be futile, particularly when Courage and her children switch clothes to pretend to be either Catholic or Protestant. When Eilif is wooed away to join the army by a wily officer (Jacobi Howard), it’s money, not the mission, that motivates him.

The bleakness of Courage losing her children one by one is tempered somewhat by the festive stoicism she preaches, accompanied by the ten live musicians onstage, many of whom are actors doing double-duty. At any given time there can be a double bass, a banjo, an accordion, and a three-piece brass band chugging along (side note: who knew Rick Foucheux, playing the Chaplain, was such a good tuba player?). Smith follows Brechtian doctrine to remind the audience they’re watching a play: The actors read the stage directions at the beginning of each scene; the lights frequently go up all through the house; and scenes occasionally pause for a few seconds, with Turner and the other actors cast in a flat yellow light like a sepia photograph.

The set, by Todd Rosenthal, is as practical and ingenious as our heroine, crafting an army tent from ropes and a sheet of netting and incorporating all kinds of props and furniture into Courage’s cart. Longtime Arena costume director Joseph P. Salasovich has made the costumes austerity-bland; with the exception of Yvette, whose hooker clothes are vibrant but worn, and who later reappears in what seems to be a glorious fur-trimmed fatsuit.

In addition to Turner, who carries the show on her seemingly unshakable shoulders, credit goes to Weaver as Kattrin, who manages to steal scenes without uttering a word through her tragicomic miming and her guttural, furious howls when trouble’s afoot. Smith wisely ends with an indelible image of Courage outstretching her hand to follow the soldiers after losing everything. That gesture is hard to forget, but Weaver’s remarkable performance underscores the poignancy of the innocents who aren’t equipped to even pretend to spin war in their favor.

Mother Courage and Her Children is at Arena Stage through March 9. Running time is about two and half hours, with one intermission. Tickets ($55 and up) are available via Arena’s website.