A woman drenched in blood staggers into view, screaming about her blown-off arm. A soldier assaults a young girl, permanently scarring her face with a dark red gash. Bodies lie strewn across the stage as a fife and drum chorus plays cheerily in the background.
Jarring war scenes and bloody deaths confront the audience of the Tower Players’ production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and her Children,” which opened last night in Markel Auditorium. The production, directed by Professor of Theatre James Brandon, successfully combines classic Brechtian alienation techniques with unique aesthetic elements that help the audience relate the play to their own lives.
The story, set during the 30 Years’ War, follows the wartime wanderings of peasant Anna Fierling, or “Mother Courage,” as she, her three children, and an assortment of companions drag a cart across Poland, Germany, and Bavaria, peddling stolen goods and food to the soldiers, singing for their supper, and switching their allegiances between Catholics and Lutherans to suit whatever company they find themselves in.
“The most challenging aspect of her character is that she is all of us,” said senior Catherine Coffey, who stars as Mother Courage. “She’s lovable at times but then you see her doing these horrendous things, and it’s so hard to admit that I couldn’t do anything different in her position. It’s difficult to treat her as a human being and not as a caricature.”
In the spirit of Brechtian epische theater, the set design is minimal, featuring little more than a projection screen, some sparse furniture, and scaffolding. The sound operators sit in plain view on stage, a choice that helps keep the audience from ever forgetting the artificiality of the play.
“The sort of open set, the revealing of the operators and stuff, that’s very Brechtian,” Brandon said. “Calling attention to the fact that you’re sitting in the theater.”
The barren design also forces the audience to notice the one thing onstage that doesn’t change: Mother Courage’s cart. For the audience, the cart eventually becomes a permanent fixture of the play. As the characters develop an almost emotional attachment to it, so does the audience. As a result, when the cart is almost destroyed during the play, or rolled offstage in the final scene, the audience experiences a jolt of loss.
Other features similarly jolt the audience, forcing its members to realize the relevance of the play to their own lives. The stage floor is a montage of presidential campaign posters and declarations of war from America’s history, and in-between each scene, a screen plays a clip from the recent presidential race: Chris Christie calling for a no-fly zone in Syria or Donald Trump complaining about ISIS.
“We’re tying it into the 2016 election,” Brandon said. “Brecht wanted you to take the play and think about the world you’re living in right now. So for him, the play was World War II.”
Brecht used the images of the 30 Years’ War, a holocaust for Germany in its day, to comment in 1945 on the Holocaust of World War II. Likewise, the audience today is encouraged to consider the holocausts that might come in our own time — as ISIS wages war in Syria and Iraq and our politicians remain at war with one another over what to do about it.
Yet, amid the dire warnings of war and the often inhuman actions of the characters, the cast of “Mother Courage” succeeds in peppering the performance with tender moments of humanity that achieve fleeting audience sympathy. Sophomore Mark Naida as Eilif touchingly embraces his mother after a two-year separation; senior Faith Liu as Mother Courage’s mute daughter Kattrin shyly admires her feet in a pair of red boots; and Coffey as Mother Courage herself vehemently refuses to abandon her daughter for the sake of a business venture — all moments of true connection and compassion in the midst of the war that inspire real emotional reactions from the audience, fleeting though those moments may be.
“This particular play is about the aspects of Mother Courage that we all share,” Coffey said. “And so I decided to focus on those and watch people — focus on the way people treat earthly possessions versus other people. I watched mothers and children, just to sort of see how they interact. It was much more character research than dramaturgical research.”
The show runs through Sunday in Markel Auditorium, with performances every night at 8 p.m. and a matinee on Sunday at 2 p.m.