Saturday, March 23, 2019

Pangea World Theater's "Mother Courage" is Worth Consideration

What makes a good mother? 

*Correction: I unintentionally misspelled the name of Marcela Michelle as Marcella Mobama in my initial review; I apologize for the mistake and have corrected it here. 

That's always been a mercurial question, but it's harder to answer than it seems. We live in an era of helicopter parenting, and while there seems to be a backlash coming - what is the alternative? Do we want to return to the days of moms doing martini lunches sitting bored at home all day and chain smoking Mad Men style? Where's the healthy balance?

Asking the question far more dramatically than Matthew Weiner ever did is Bertolt Brecht's legendary play Mother Courage and Her Children (Mother Courage), now being produced by the delightful Pangea World Theater (Pangea) at the equally delightful Lab Theater in the North Loop. Mother Courage details the story of a woman of the same name as she navigates the devastating 30 Years' War over the course of 12 years (in 12 scenes). Mother Courage travels to the battlefront in hopes of profiting off of others' misfortunes but quickly finds her own; first one (Swiss Cheese, the honest), then the other son (Eilif, the brave) are recruited by the army and die in equally sad ways. Her mute daughter Kattrin eventually dies as well after many years of hard toil and suffering at her mother's side. Various figures of the war, from soldiers to peasants to prostitutes to generals to cooks, waft in and out of Mother Courage's orbit and illuminate the deep level of suffering the war caused. Overarching the show is the question - what kind of mother brings her children into a war zone (and then lets them leave to die)? But in a world of poverty and devastation, at the end of the day - what kind of mother wouldn't try to take advantage when no other options were left?

This is the second Pangea show I've had the pleasure of seeing, and let me say: they are really a delightful bunch doing incredible work under the radar. Despite the heavy material, Mother Courage still has a lot of heart, hope and entertainment wrapped within it. The darkness won't leave you feeling depressed by the end, and that's mostly due to the passionate and charismatic cast. Almost all the actors serve in multiple roles, and they convincingly paint a much wider picture than their small numbers would indicate. Favorites for me included Marcela Michelle as a duty-bound soldier; Clay Man Soo as convicted recruit Eilif; Ricardo Beaird as the deceptively charming cook; and Adlyn Carreras as the wily, empathetic Mother Courage. They all find small details that breathe their characters into life (such as Beaird's pipe and Mobama's sooted soldier's face) and tackle this material with full humanity. I also want to call out that this performance uses some of the most impeccable diction I've ever heard on stage (thanks to vocal coach Mira Kehoe); Brecht can be a little winding and obtuse, but their care with the dialogue and characterization ensures that nothing gets lost in translation.

This is somehow my first time ever attending a show at the Lab Theater and I have to tell you - I have been completely missing out! It's a stunning setting that gives plenty of room for the mobile set (mostly comprising of a wagon and accouterments, designed sturdily by Orin Herfindal) to breathe and easily implies the starry night skies of a battlefield. Costumes, designed by Mary Ann Kelling, are generally simple but feature the same careful and iconic attention to detail as the actors pay to their parts. Mike Olson composed music to punctuate the script and mimic Brecht's iconic dissonant style, and with musician Homer Lambrecht he provides an audible context for the tone of each scene. Overall, director Dipankar Mukherjee's vision is clearly realized and emotionally conveyed by this eager creative team both on and behind stage, and I really appreciated the obvious care with which they approached this material.

Brecht's purpose in writing this play (allegedly within only a single month in 1939) was to bring awareness within Germany to the dangers of the swiftly rising forces of Fascism and Nazism. Unfortunately we all know how that story ended, but one hopes that staging Mother Courage in our modern era - another time when Facism seems to be gaining quick and terrifying popularity at locations around the world - will help educate audiences toward another, better outcome. Don't let the idea of Brecht or the subject matter scare you away from seeing Mother Courage; it's a very well made show with a gorgeous program that will explain everything you didn't know, and the performers will leave you with an emotional, heartfelt performance. If you've made the rounds of the heavyweights in the local theater circuit (the Ordways and Guthries and Hennepin Theater Trusts and yes, even the Jungles) - and if you're reading this I'm guessing you've attended each of those venues a time or three - consider branching out into a lesser known (but by NO means less important) local theater company that is also beautifully producing "classic" work. Pangea's mission to support diversity and true, genuine inclusion at all levels of a production is more of what we need to see in the world (aka providing solutions), and your dollar will go much further there to spread throughout the local arts community than it will at theaters with much shiner endowment lists. Mother Courage runs through March 31; for more information and to buy tickets, click on this link.

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