Review: ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ at Quintessence Theatre

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Janis Dardaris is a force to be reckoned with. As Mother Courage, standing firm with her hands on her hips and wearing a white, shapeless frock covered by a blue sweater, she is a tower of strength while the world around her is falling apart. With a guttural voice and a world-weary attitude, she watches the landscape around her get consumed by a long and pointless war. But since she makes her living selling provisions to soldiers, she wants to keep the war going as long as possible. “With luck,” she sings at one point, “we’ve still got twenty years to go.”

Janis Dardaris (as Mother Courage), Forrest McClendon (as The Cook). Photo by Shawn May.
Janis Dardaris (as Mother Courage) and Forrest McClendon (as The Cook). Photo by Shawn May.

Dardaris’ rich performance is the best reason to see Quintessence Theatre’s respectful and thought-provoking production of Mother Courage and Her Children.

Bertolt Brecht’s ambitious play decries the futility of war by depicting one woman who is determined to make a profit from war in any way possible. She succeeds, but sees her homeland, and her family, torn apart in the process. (Written just before Europe was devastated by World War II, the play is set during another European cataclysm, the Thirty Years’ War of the early 17th century.)

Mother Courage bursts with cynicism and sarcasm, as when Mother observes that “For us at the bottom, there’s not much difference between victory and defeat.” (David Hare’s fine, plainspoken translation, dotted with some modern-day profanities, makes the most of this humor.)

There’s a lot to admire in Mother Courage; Director Alexander Burns’ production has some dramatic moments that cut deep. Yet the play is so didactic (with lots of symbolism, little plot development, and few characters that the audience can identify with), and so long (running three hours), that it can be a challenge to get through at times.

Burns’ production has bold moments throughout that make effective use of Brecht’s alienation techniques, designed to remind the audience of the artificiality of what they’re viewing. (The best is the audacious finale, which makes Brecht’s allusions crystal clear.) And Burns’ set design, with white curtains dominating what should be a bleak landscape, helps a great deal. But some of the staging choices are odd – such as placing crucial moments at the edge of the playing area, where most of the audience has its view blocked by the people in the front row.

Quintessence’s production boasts an original score by Michael Friedman (composer of Broadway’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) full of ironic, off-kilter cabaret songs. (Pianist Michael Pacifico and guitarist Tom Carman accompany the singers from offstage.)

The best number is a comic extravaganza led by Forrest McClendon, who gives a sly, cutting performance as a military cook. McClendon’s number starts quietly and climaxes with a kickline full of soldiers (Kaki Burns does the choreography.)

 Forrest McClendon (The Cook) and the ensemble. Photo by Shawn May.
Forrest McClendon (The Cook) and the ensemble. Photo by Shawn May.

Playing the sad sack of a Chaplain who accompanies Mother for much of her journey, Gregory Isaac’s deadpan irony brings a surprising touch of humor to the proceedings. Leah Gabriel livens things up as a boozy and blowsy prostitute, and Leigha Kato is touching as Mother’s mute daughter.

Mother Courage and Her Children is a play that demands a lot of its cast and its audience. It’s not for the fainthearted, filled as it is with calamity and dark humor. But if you’re up for a sobering examination of mankind at its most tragic, then you’ll find this production’s powerful message – and its excellent lead performance – worth checking out.

Running Time: 3 hours, including an intermission.

Mother Courage and Her Children plays through November 6, 2016, at Quintessence Theatre Group performing at The Sedgwick Theater – 7137 Germantown Avenue (Mount Airy), in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call (215) 987-4450, or purchase them online.