Friday, June 4, 2010

Brecht and Beer and All Bets Off: dog & pony dc's Courage

[CONFLICT ALERT: When I saw dog & pony dc's Courage in its workshop production last year, I not only blogged about it here, but also volunteered to help them with PR for the show's full production. So what follows is not a review, but some personal thoughts about what's at stake in director Rachel Grossman's approach to Bertolt Brecht and Mother Courage and Her Children.]

I've seen a number of productions of Mother Courage over the years. They're usually letdowns. As a rule, directors seem more determined to genuflect to Brecht instead of direct a 21st Century version of the play. It is like watching a work frozen in amber. These Mother Courages of the modern age pull a lot more than a cart. They lug the accumulated weight of more than 60 years of doing the play precisely the same way. In a time of our own wars and military contractor rip-offs, so ripe for the scalpel of Brecht's sharp words, it seems like a lost opportunity.

The audiences and critics of the D.C. area are going to judge whether director Rachel Grossman has done better with dog & pony dc's Courage. But one thing can be stated as fact about this production: Grossman has definitely cast off the weight of accreted custom about Mother Courage and Her Children and yanked the cart in a different direction. New songs. A sassy irreverence to both the follies and waste of the battlefield (very Brechtian) and also to Brecht as a director. And beer. Lots of beer. Pabst Blue Ribbon.

But one of the things that attracted me to this project was a larger concern. Opportunities to do epic theater, to tell big stories with larger ensembles, have dwindled precipitously for the last four decades. DC has been lucky that a few brave companies -- Woolly Mammoth, Forum Theatre -- have tackled some big plays like Full Circle and Marat/Sade and Angels in America. (And I was lucky enough to have Taffety Punk Theatre Company agree to produce my own larger than usual play -- larger in cast size, at least -- Burn Your Bookes last month.)

I'm excited by these opportunities and productions because they are clearing room to keep telling stories of this size and scope on the stage. And in the case of Courage, for sure, part of that space clearance is conceptual. People are not going to see Brecht -- and experience the magic that he creates with his large dramatic canvases -- if we don't help him along into the 21st Century as we already help Shakespeare. (And now that I think about it, George Bernard Shaw is another playwright who could use such a conceptual renovation.)

So Rachel has her Mother Courage -- Wyckham Avery -- pulling a NASCARt into a landscape of game shows, reality TV, and indie rock and folk. And whatever the result -- and I do hope this has persuaded you to consider seeing it -- it's important work that should echo past this production. It's an enlargement of possibility and discussion that's key to keeping DC theater vital.

(Photo of the cast of dog & pony dc's Courage.)

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