Review: ‘The Mother’ Rises Up Again in the Name of Revolution – The New York Times

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The Wooster Group’s production will prompt discussions about the company’s vision for Brecht’s “learning play.”
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There’s a bit of an echo when the actors in the Wooster Group’s production of “The Mother” speak. At first I assumed that their voices were being digitally filtered. This would have been par for the course for the company, whose longstanding affinity for technological wizardry is well known. And it would have been an ingenious idea for a Bertolt Brecht play, reinforcing the alienation effect the playwright sought by subtly reminding us we were watching a show.
Soon, though, I realized it was wizardry of another kind: For much of the time the actors were miming their own recorded lines. Unlike Deirdre O’Connell’s performance in “Dana H.” on Broadway, where lip-syncing never gets in the way of a devastating emotional realism, the Woosters go for an arch theatricality in the service of the story’s agitprop roots. Since they mostly sing the show’s brief numbers live, I found myself looking out for the transitions between what was recorded and what was not.
In Brecht’s “The Mother” — not to be confused with his own “Mother Courage and Her Children,” which it predates by seven years — an apolitical woman named Pelagea Vlasov (Kate Valk, magnetic as ever) is pulled into communist activism after her son (Gareth Hobbs) is jailed for fighting on behalf of factory workers.
The show, first produced in Germany in 1932, was inspired by a 1906 Russian novel by Maxim Gorky and Brecht conceived it as a “learning play.” A narrator (Jim Fletcher) helpfully fills us in on the historical and literary background in a prologue, and pops up again at regular intervals to essentially provide footnotes. It’s as if we are watching a play and reading its CliffsNotes at the same time, extending the learning process to the directing style.
The Wooster Group, now in its 46th year, has acquired a reputation for cerebral, often opaque productions, and it’s true that the company’s shows can be puzzling. This one, directed, like most of them, by Elizabeth LeCompte, is no exception. (It premiered in June at the Vienna Festival.)
But the process often has a degree of transparency because the company is not shy about listing its sources and regularly uploads to its website a variety of informative videos, including excerpts from rehearsals, that help contextualize what audience members end up seeing. In one of the videos for “The Mother,” for example, Valk says that the company was attracted to the story of a woman who becomes radicalized in her 60s. It is hard not to think of LeCompte, 77, and Valk, 65, who continue to explore theater with an energy and inquisitiveness people a third of their age might envy.
It might be fair to say (warn?) that some of the Wooster Group shows, like its head-scratching “Hamlet,” in which they repurposed Richard Burton’s performance from 1964, can be less involving to experience than to discuss with your friends in a doomed attempt to figure out what the company was trying to do.
And so it goes with “The Mother.” The production both hews to the original text and honors the theatrical traditions that birthed it, and then it tweaks them. Hanns Eisler’s original score is sometimes juxtaposed with a new one by Amir ElSaffar, for example, and in some scenes ElSaffar’s jazzy music combines with the actors’ staccato delivery to create something akin to a 1930s Warner Bros. noir about the workers’ struggle. Why the Woosters went for that effect — well, we could meet over a drink and talk about it for a few hours.
The Mother
Through Nov. 20 at the Performing Garage, Manhattan; thewoostergroup.org. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
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