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Finding the Nerve in 'Mother Courage'

Nobody wants to sit through "Mother Courage and Her

Children." Bertolt Brecht's famous 1941 play has a reputation for being

intentionally off-putting, dourly intellectual, and about as long as the Thirty

Years War during which the action takes place.

Leave it to the gutsy Classical Theatre of Harlem to give the show a shot

in the arm. The adventurous troupe's production of "Mother Courage," which

opened Friday night, reminds us that Brecht can be lively, funny and even -

every now and then - moving.

In a series of self-contained scenes, "Mother Courage" tells the story of a

woman who supports herself and her three grown children by selling wartime

goods to soldiers on both sides of Europe's Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

There's plenty of tragedy in these keen-edged portraits of the ironies of war

and profit, but there's also a good deal of comedy, bleak as it may be. There

are also, in typical Brechtian fashion, songs.

Director Christopher McElroen stages the play as a junkyard cabaret,

creating a world in which the performers comfortably slide in and out of direct

address to the audience. With anachronistic touches such as patriotic T-shirts

and multiple television screens (on which a Fox News newscaster delivers

Brecht's brief scene introductions), McElroen underscores the script's

contemporary resonance without overplaying it.

The versatile set by Troy Hourie infiltrates every corner of the playing

space, surrounding the audience with its dusty battlefield severity. Hourie

imagines Mother Courage's cart as a mini-trailer that cleverly splits open. At

center stage is a turntable on which the enduring Courage rolls on, on, on.

Gwendolyn Mulamba may be a bit too youthful for the title role, but she's

such a strong and agile stage presence that it hardly matters. Her Mother

Courage has an unforced sense of humor and a stoic pragmatism that guard a

sinewy devotion to her family.

The dignified Michael Early (as an army chaplain) and the mischievous

Oberon K.A. Adjepong (as a slyly suave cook) make contrasting but equally

compelling suitors for her. Leopold Lowe endows Courage's oldest son with a

tough belligerence, while Jaime Carrillo displays a trusting sweetness as his

dim-witted brother. The fearless Maechi Aharanwa offers a childishly volatile

take on Courage's mute daughter.

Several actors perform a song or two, and many of them are obviously

inexperienced singers. That's OK: Seeing the performers' varying degrees of

discomfort can inspire just the sort of theatrical self-consciousness that

Brecht would advocate.

But it's the tunes sung by Mulamba, the best-trained voice of the cast,

that provoke the production's shiver-inducing moments. Thanks to the actress'

vocal surety, Mother Courage's musical reunion with her oldest son acquires

real sentimental pull, and Mulamba's rendition of "The Song of the Great

Capitulation" gives its final logical turn a disconcerting emotional immediacy.

McElroen and his admirably energetic ensemble can't quite manage to keep

the pace from flagging as the production stretches into its third hour. Still,

this "Mother Courage" not only provokes thought; it also, as in those moments

when Mulamba sings, surreptitiously surprises us into feeling.


MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN. By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Eric

Bentley, directed by Christopher McElroen. With Gwendolyn Mulamba, Maechi

Aharanwa, Leopold Lowe, Jaime Carrillo, Michael Early, Oberon K.A. Adjepong,

Anna Zastrow. Set by Troy Hourie, costumes by Kimberly Glennon, lights by Aaron

Black, sound by Matt Kraus, original music by William "Spaceman" Patterson,

choreography by Bruce Heath, video design by Elaine McCarthy. HSA Theater, 645

St. Nicholas Ave. near 141st St. Seen at opening Friday.

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