Much of theater’s power comes from its immediacy. Those are real people on stage, sometimes close enough to touch, who are singing, dancing, flirting and fighting, with no computer-generated shenanigans intruding between performer and audience.
With “Mother Courage and her Children,” director Keri Wormald and the crew at TheatreLab have amped up that captivating immediacy to an intense degree. The stylized wartime saga surrounds the audience on three sides and actors sometimes wander through the crowd, addressing patrons face-to-face. Audience members are commanded to pivot their folding chairs when the action shifts or to sit on the ground or stand to find a good vantage point. Judged as an immersive experience, “Mother Courage” is thrilling.
But as a theatrical experience, the production doesn’t entirely succeed. TheatreLab’s Basement venue is stripped of artifice with no true stage to speak of. The action sometimes is clumsily lighted, with lighting designer Erin Barclay struggling against the challenges of the confined space. The scene is bleak, much like the story that’s told of a merchant who follows the battles of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War in the early 17th century, looking to make a living among the many people dying.
Dubbed Mother Courage, the merchant is played by Boomie Pedersen in a fierce, grizzled and resolute performance. Her persistent companion is a massive, ramshackle commissary cart — constructed by scenic designer Ryan Gardner and assistant technical director Sam Howerton. It dominates the stage, gets regularly hauled from one end of the venue to the other and, more than her children, represents her life as well as her livelihood.
Mother Courage has three children at the play’s start: the soon-to-be enlisted Eilif (Jahred King), the company paymaster Swiss Cheese (Tyler Nobles) and the mute Kattrin (Savannah Hatcher). As the story unfolds, the children play relatively heroic roles in the ongoing war. But in what clearly is playwright Bertolt Brecht’s point, their circumstances all end tragically.
Each situation has its dramatic moments and the actors involved do good work overcoming the often-awkward cadences of Brecht’s dialogue. King delivers a stirring rap version of a song called “The Wise Woman and the Soldier” and, in her stage debut, Hatcher makes the biggest impression with her silent expressiveness.
But ultimately, Mother Courage and her children seem more like symbols than fully realized characters. Brecht is unsympathetic to his capitalistic matriarch, never allowing her to show grief, and the hardships she and her family face play out more like object lessons than genuine encounters.
The supporting players provide interesting diversions, both dramatically and thematically. Mark Caudle shines as a chaplain who hides his identify and his faith, hinting at how religion also gets perverted in wartime. Both Caudle’s chaplain and a cook, winningly played by Kelsey Cordrey, offer alternative futures to Mother Courage, which she obstinately refuses. Anna Rose makes a fetching impression as another Brechtian prop, a prostitute who arguably ends up better off than all of the other characters.
The songs throughout, with original music written and performed by Hatcher, manage to stir the emotions better than most of the straight dialogue. There is no catharsis here, but as a fun interactive journey and a challenging think piece, “Mother Courage” provides plenty of intellectual gristle to chew. S
“Mother Courage and her Children” runs through Nov. 12. at TheatreLab. Tickets and information available at theatrelabrva.org.