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Subversive Mother

The Mother, drama by Bertolt Brecht presented by Subversive Theatre Collective, through August 8th.

In The Mother, Bertolt Brecht invented the first in his litany of iconic theatrical mothers. Rebecca Ward is currently playing the role in the Subversive Theater Collective production at the Manny Fried Playhouse in the Great Arrow Building. This playful rendering of a seldom-performed 1932 work makes use of live instrumentalists, theater games, and a great deal of audience participation.

For Brecht, the maternal and the moral were roughly equivalent. Nonetheless, not all of the “mothers” found in his plays embody the maternal ideal. In Caucasian Chalk Circle, for example, a judge awards a child to a woman who has rescued and protected the boy, rather than to the upper-class biological mother who has abandoned him to ensure her own safety. The title character of Mother Courage is unable to make maternal sacrifices to help others.

By contrast, the titular mother of this play, Pelagea Vlassova, is a caring mother and an entirely positive person. Unique among Brecht’s women, Vlassova is neither manipulated by men, nor compromised by circumstance.

The thesis of The Mother is that experience can inspire a person, even a traditional mother, to adopt revolutionary ideas that might formerly have frightened her. Moreover, the play shows how individual decisions can alter events radically.

Rebecca Ward is a marvelous actress who has only just resumed working in local theater after, interestingly, raising her own children. She is blazing an impressive trail with a succession of well-realized characters. Ward brings a steady and earnest kindness and a wry sense of humor to her portrayal of Pelagea Vlassova.

In a production that calls upon the actors to supervise audience-participation scenes, Ward remains attentive, yet in character, and still manages to imbue the proceedings with great feeling. Affecting an urban northeastern American accent, her Vlassova is unpretentious and down to earth, but certainly no fool. She serves as a solid anchor to the evening.

While Brecht’s theatrical vision was didactic, he was simultaneously theatrical, joyfully so, and a true showman. His theory of an “epic” theater, as opposed to “Aristotelian” or “cathartic,” did not banish empathy from the dramatic experience entirely, rather he believed that a theater in which the actors and the members of the audience maintained a critical detachment, even while they felt powerful emotions, could affect positive change. Brecht’s widow, Helene Weigel, who originated the roles of both Pelagea Vlassova and Mother Courage, actually asked Ethel Merman to play the latter role on Broadway. (Merman was reportedly confused by the offer.)

There were times when the Subversive Theater production felt like being in a classroom, rather than a theater, as when we were given little pop quizzes about our knowledge of Brecht, or when we were prompted to predict where the next scene would take place. At times these queries suggested superficial understandings of Brecht, of Marxist theory, and of contemporary politics. We were, for instance, asked what Brecht’s theater is called—the answer is “The Berliner Ensemble,” but the answer sought was “Epic,” the name of Brecht’s theory of theater.

Any suggestion of contemporary relevance to the piece was reduced to a fleeting reference to the crisis in mortgage foreclosures, a placard proclaiming “BP Sux,” a passing reference to universal healthcare, and so forth. Parallels to these issues suggest much richer opportunities for meaningful connections. Think of the false consciousness that inspired people who temporarily had good health or health insurance to oppose universal healthcare; or of politicians who saw BP as the injured party in the Gulf of Mexico disaster; or those who blamed people who had taken out mortgages for which they could not even afford the first payment, rather than the predatory banks. This is all fertile Brechtian content.

While the device of engaging spectators through theater games was quite fun and injected life into the proceedings, such antics would seem to be at odds with Brecht’s notion of critical detachment and intellectual distancing. Brecht did not want his audiences to get swept up in the drama or to identify emotionally with the characters to point of losing themselves and their critical distance. Rather, he wanted to provoke a critical view of the action on the stage, and a state of rational self-reflection.

As a critic, I was content to engage in the first theater game, in which we played catch, calling the names of fellow participants before tossing a small ball. I was not, however, willing to surrender my individuality and detachment to being part of a human “machine,” and to speed up and slow down while being instructed to do so. Neither did I feel that the appropriate perspective from which to view the workers’ protest rallies was as a participant.

Still, it was impossible not to be charmed by the Subversive Theater production of The Mother. The cast embarked on the journey with great energy and commitment. In addition to Ward, I admired John Kehoe as the police chief, Sigorski, and the butcher. Bekki Sliwa is also compelling as Masha, the prison guard, and Mrs. Butcher. Lawrence Rowswell is highly amusing as the irritable gatekeeper and as the teacher who must be taught. Andrew Kottler is very endearing as the son, Pavel Valssov, and renders the play’s most moving scenes with Ward. Indeed, the entire ensemble is quite good, and commits to the directorial concept without hesitation or restraint. Sounds by Patrick Cain and Gabriel Gutierrez add enormous vigor, atmosphere, and wit to the production.