By apropst on Jan 20, 2016 | In ATW Reviews
Bravery abounds in Brian Kulick’s new staging of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, thanks to Kecia Lewis, who took on the herculean title role after the much-publicized departure of Tonya Pinkins.
It’s a part that many liken to King Lear for a woman, and Lewis has opened the show having had just two weeks to rehearse while also performing. It's not an admirable situation for any performer, but the actor acquits herself well in this production that shifts the action from Europe during the Thirty Years War to the war-torn Congo of the 1990s. Lewis, despite an occasional reliance on a script or prompting, delivers a performance that goes beyond being simply credible. Her Courage is both brutally and coolly pragmatic and also warm in her maternal instincts for the three grown children who travel alongside her as she sells wares to the military and civilians she encounters along the battle lines.
Of course, there's something remarkably "meta" about Lewis' own challenges in mastering the role and those that the character faces, and this fact, combined with the presence of a script in the actress' hands disguised as a kind of ledger for Mother Courage, gives the show an added Brechtian touch of reminding theatergoers that they are watching a piece of theater. It creates the sort of distancing that the playwright advocated throughout his career.
Supporting Lewis' work admirably are the three performers who play Courage's children. Curtiss Cook Jr. makes her eldest son, Eilif, an arrogant sort who gives in to the brutality of a soldier's life with remarkable ease. Deandre Sevon imbues Courage's middle child, Swiss Cheese, with innocence and sweetness, and as her mute daughter, Katrin, Mirirai Sithole delivers a deeply moving performance. The actress has the ability to communicate volumes using just her highly expressive and mutable face.
Lewis also finds a terrific and supportive leading man of sorts in Kevin Mambo, who plays a military cook who takes a shine to the hard-nosed businesswoman. With an easygoing swagger and wickedly alluring smile, Mambo makes this quick-witted man someone who's impossible to resist.
Unfortunately, as alluring as these performances are and despite the multilayered event that is Lewis' impressively nuanced performance, Kulick's approach to the play underwhelms. The director has heavily cut John Willett's translation, and though nothing in the central plot is missing, Brecht's ideological flights are severely undermined. And though Kulick's decision to reset the proceedings in modern times might add a certain immediacy to the action, there's a sense that Toni-Leslie James' costumes, the performers' accents, and Duncan Sheik's intriguing music, which fuses African rhythms with an electronic vibe, are only laid on top of the action.
Perhaps most curious is one aspect of Tony Straiges' scenic design: the front section of a jeep that seems to be part of Mother Courage's wagon, laden with wares. It certainly serves as one additional indication of the production's locale, but it also makes Courage's references to pulling the cart confusing, and it's hard not to wish that the overall conceit for this Mother Courage was as brave as Lewis herself.
---- Andy Propst
Mother Courage and Her Children plays at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: classicstage.org.
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