Theater Review: Shakespeare & Co Mounts a Powerful Staging of “Mother Courage”

Olympia Dukakis makes good on her desire to tap into the weakness the indomitable Mother Courage fights so hard to cover up: the actress conveys the highs and lows of this gargantuan character with enormous power.

Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht. Translated from the German by Eric Bentley. Directed by Tony Simotes. Staged by Shakespeare & Co at the Tina Packer Playhouse, through August 25.

By Susan Miron

in Mother Courage

Brooke Parks and Olympia Dukakis in Shakespeare & Company’s production of “Mother Courage.” Photo: Kevin Sprague.

Considered one of the most important plays of the twentieth century, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1941) had a complicated history. Some speculate it was Winston Churchill’s dubbing World War II “the second Thirty Years War” that inspired Brecht to write this play, which is set in 1624-1636. Many of the nations that fought the Thirty Years War over religious differences were at it again; Brecht was appalled. The German-born poet and dramatist, whose plays drew on Marxist theory, went into exile when Hitler was elected in 1933. He initially settled in Sweden, the home nation for the army that Mother Courage and her canteen follows. The title role was written for Swedish actress Naima Wifstrand because Brecht expected the play would premiere in Stockholm. Brecht’s wife, the actress Helene Weigel, spoke no Swedish, so Brecht created the part of Courage’s mute daughter for her. Ultimately, the play was considered too politically inflammatory to be performed in Sweden; its first performance took place in Zurich two years later. The Berlin staging, directed by Brecht, starred his wife, who became famous for her portrayal of Mother Courage.

In the words of Brecht, Mother Courage was “not beautiful and was built like a dumpling with the face of a basset hound. Not a sexually attractive woman… She was ordinary, sly, sometimes sour.” What brought Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis to star in this Shakespeare and Company production is an interesting story on its own. Last season, Tony Simotes, Shakespeare and Company’s artistic director, cast Dukakis to play Prospera, a female version of Prospero, in a staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She had been Simotes’s teacher at NYU, and had done her last production of Mother Courage twenty years ago. Now 83, she was curious about taking one more stab at portraying this tragic, indomitable anti-heroine. Dukakis once appeared in her own version of this celebrated anti-war play; Shakespeare & Company production uses the 1955 Eric Bentley translation.

At a group interview, Dukakis talked about her interest in performing the role again: “Mother Courage has a vulnerability that I always refused to play before now. One by one she loses her children to the forces of war, yet she is such a relentless, maniacal entrepreneur that she finds the strength to carry on, to carry her cart and its goods.”

"Mother Courage"

John Douglas Thompson, Olympia Dukakis, and Brooke Parks Shakespeare & Co’s “Mother Courage.” Photo: Kevin Sprague.

Dukakis makes good on her desire to tap into the emotional weakness Mother Courage fights so hard to cover up: the actress conveys the highs and lows of this gargantuan character with enormous power. As in most Shakespeare and Co. productions, the seasoned cast of 16 blend together beautifully. John Douglas Thompson, as The Cook (a role he played in an earlier American Repertory Theater production of the script) makes superb use of his charismatic presence and beautiful, resonant voice. The Cook is one of two of Mother Courage’s suitors. He offers her – but not her daughter – a place at an inn he’s just inherited. (She refuses.) Long ago, we learn from a prostitute, played to sassy perfection by Paula Langton, that The Cook was quite the Romeo, but by the play’s middle, he’s starving and desperate. Dukakis’s brother, Apollo, has the role of the other suitor. The two siblings’ look eerily similar, and they play off of each other almost as well as Thompson performs with Olympia Dukakis.

Mother Courage’s grown children are acted with vim and vigor. Ryan Winkles, as the not terribly clever son called Swiss Cheese, and Josh Aaron McCabe, as the son who is easily lured into the army, are quite good. Brooke Parks as Kattrin, the mute, grunting daughter, gives a remarkably moving performance throughout. The onstage band was also effective, though I wasn’t quite sure the vocals was meant to be singing or Sprechstimme. Occasionally the difference in singing volume between John Douglas Thompson and Olympia Dukakis is a tad jarring, but overall all they are a fine duo.

This was Shakespeare and Company’s first stab at Brecht. In a interview, Simotes explained that tackling the play was inevitable: “It’s like the top of Mt. Everest. You just have to get to it someday.” Theatergoers should be very glad he, Dukakis and the rest of Shakespeare & Co make the challenging climb.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.

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