James Rana, Jamie Carrillo, Michael Early, and Gwendolyn Mulambain Mother Courage and Her Children(Photo © Troy Hourie)
James Rana, Jamie Carrillo, Michael Early, and Gwendolyn Mulamba
in Mother Courage and Her Children
(Photo © Troy Hourie)
In conversation, Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children -- Mutter Courage und Ihre Kinder in the original German -- is often referred to as simply Mother Courage; but few actual productions of the play, first performed in Zurich during World War II, cut the title short. Director Christopher McElroen's treatment for the Classical Theatre of Harlem certainly doesn't do so, likely for reasons not only of the work's universality but also because of its pertinence to the community in which it's now being presented.

In one possible precis, Brecht's astringent 1941 wartime outcry concerns a woman who's trying to raise and keep safe three children in the absence of a father figure. Each of the siblings -- Eilif, Swiss Cheese, and Kattrin -- has a different no-show dad. Sadly, this situation is not uncommon in Harlem. On the contrary, it's woefully familiar, just as CTH's Medea of two years ago seemed deliberately chosen to resonate with conditions immediately outside the auditorium's doors. In the Euripides tragedy, a woman raises two boys while their other parent is gallivanting elsewhere; in neither play does any good come to the children.

Brecht, patently commenting on the catastrophic situation in Germany at the time the play was written, set his 12-scene allegory in an equally devastated Germany during the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. As a communist, Brecht wasn't specifically concerned with that conflict (and the supposed seven million dead by the time it was over) since the fighting began and ended as, in large part, a religious battle. But he did believe that war is war. Viewed from that perspective, Mother Courage has much to say about all wars -- including the silent ones that are still taking place in oppressed urban areas.

McElroen is to be thanked for his thoughtful reading of Brecht's enduring work; so far, this anti-war grenade has remained relevant for more than 60 years, and one fears that it will continue to have meaning far into the future. The director is also to be thanked for the physical production he's accorded the play. Troy Hourie's set, created on what appears to be a large budget but perhaps isn't, has as its dominating feature a turntable raised a foot or so from the stage to resemble a Lazy Susan for giants. On it are posts by which it can be pushed while Mother Courage (Gwendolyn Mulamba) and her children (Maechi Aharanwa, Leopold Lowe, and Jaime Carrillo) pull round and round the cart that carries Mother Courage's commercial wares.

In McElroen's and Hourie's vision, this isn't just any old cart; it's a dilapidated mini-trailer that boldly conjures a 20th century used vehicle lot. Furthermore, there are a half-dozen television monitors scattered about -- two of them embedded in a sandbag wall -- on which a man introduces Brecht's 12 scenes as if he were Walter Cronkite narrating a History Channel documentary. Hourie's ominous environment is a laudable achievement. So are Kimberly Glennon's fatigued fatigues and the like, Aaron Black's gloomy lighting, Elaine McCarthy's in-your-face videos, and Matt Kraus's sound design, which helps convey the Brecht-McElroen message by including fragments of such anthems as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

McElroen deserves additional credit for tapping Gwendolyn Mulamba to be the front end of Brecht's title characters. One of the great roles because it's both emblematic and utterly human, Mother Courage is a war profiteer and a war victim. Here's a woman who, as she and her offspring drag that wagon for over a decade and countless miles, can boom "Don't tell me peace has broken out" at one moment and "Curse the war!" at another. Plotting to protect her children even as they are lost to her one by one, she's a realpolitik philosopher who insists, "Whenever there are great virtues, it's a sure sign something's wrong." (The sayings of Mother Courage read like Machiavelli edited by Chairman Mao.) Mulamba is up to the demanding role; she enters smiling like a businessman who knows the road and she maintains geniality in the face of adversity throughout her performance. This actress realizes that Mother Courage is an elixir saleswoman; she plays that part right down to addressing audience members as it they're her next pigeons.

Oberon K.A. Adjepong and Gwendolyn Mulambain Mother Courage and Her Children(Photo © Troy Hourie)
Oberon K.A. Adjepong and Gwendolyn Mulamba
in Mother Courage and Her Children
(Photo © Troy Hourie)
The physically solid but not large Mulamba isn't giving what is normally considered a "Brechtian" performance. Brecht authority Eric Bentley has defined that famous adjective as "playing from the outside" and has said that the approach was employed by Brecht's wife, Helene Weigel, who took the part of Mother Courage in the 1949 Berliner Ensemble production. He's also said that it was not the approach taken by Therese Giehse, who created the part in Zurich and simply embodied the character. It seems as if McElroen and Mulamba have agreed on the latter tactic; there is a kind of honest-thief's warmth in the performance that doesn't fade until the end when Mother Courage is bereft of ihre Kinder and has to pull that trailer around by herself.

The agreement that McElroen has reached with some of his other actors is harder to pinpoint. Maechi Aharanwa, also solid and stolid of build, does extremely well as the mute Kattrin. Able only to communicate with plaintive grunts, Kattrin is the play's tragic heroine; Aharanwa fills the order skillfully. In her final scene, when she's climbed on a roof to bang a drum as a warning of imminent danger, she's as desolate a figure as Brecht might have hoped for. This is less true of just about everyone else on stage, although Michael Early as the chaplain who falls in with Mother Courage has some commendable stretches. It would be nice to report that the ensemble acting is genuinely Brechtian -- i. e., from the outside -- but that's not the case. Though these performers are unfailingly earnest, their deficient playing obscures the effectiveness of certain scenes and even makes a few of Mother Courage's deceits and upsets difficult to follow. Noticing this, an audience member may feel that McElroen spent too much time and effort on the look of his handsome Brecht realization and not enough on how it sounds.

Especially disappointing are the renditions of Brecht's lyrics, which previously have been set by Paul Dessau and Darius Milhaud and are here carried by William "Spaceman" Patterson's Kurt Weill-influenced melodies. Lord knows -- and so does Lotte Lenya -- that there's no call for pure vocal tones when one is blasting Brecht's harsh words to the rafters, but even if they're only spoke-sung, there has to be conviction behind them. Those called on to deliver the odes in this Mother Courage -- among them, the stinging "Song of the Great Capitulation" and the cynical "Song of the Great Souls of the Earth" -- have trouble doing so. Even Mulamba, who possesses a strong voice with gritty accusation running like a steel cable through it, suffers -- at least partly because the orchestrations for her numbers seem not to be in her key.

The beauty of Bertolt Brecht's writing, which so often concerns the ugliness of human behavior, is that Brecht created contemporary myths. Mother Courage and her children are mythic figures living and dying on a mythic landscape. Though Mother Courage as guided by Christopher McElroen's hand is worth seeing, the production would have benefited from being less hit or myth...umm, miss.