Mother Courage at UAH

April 20, 2007

The University of Alabama in Huntsville Theatre program is presenting Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, which will run through this weekend. I got to see the second performance last night and left the theater still thinking about some of the scenes. We read the play in ENG 102 and everyone will write a review, so here’s my contribution.

Mother Courage is not an easy piece to stage — I don’t think any Brecht piece is all that easy to stage, especially if one attempts a real Brechtian production. But UAH Theatre gave us a good taste of epic theatre (also known as dialectic theatre).

Set design in this production is really strong, especially given challenges such as the small size of Chan Auditorium stage and the huge prop at the heart of Mother Courage: the cart. This set addresses those challenges by including two raised platforms (the stage left platform is about a foot higher and extends to the very end of stage left, while the stage right platform is raised only a few inches and extends a bit over the stage) and a small but tall wooden structure stage right that serves as storage space for props needed in various scenes and as the peasant barn that Kattrin climbs at the end of the play.

The platforms function in several ways: they give actors more room, especially since the cart takes up most of the central stage; they allow clear focal points for parts of scenes or when actors sing; they facilitate simultaneous scenes, such as when the Commander praises Eilif while Mother Courage haggles over the sale of a capon with the Cook; and they allow actors places to sit or posture (Kattrin sits on the stage left platform while the Chaplain sings, Mother Courage and the Cook dangle their legs over the stage right platform as they talk).

Mother Courage’s cart, without which she is nothing, as she says, is wheeled in at the start of the play and stays on stage for the duration. Each scene, the cart is moved slightly to better facilitate the action. Almost a character itself, the cart also serves to store props and to keep Kattrin hidden at times. From inside the cart, Kattrin changes the flag depending on which country or religion Mother Courage decides to side with.

Lighting is nothing fancy but effective. Usually somewhat muted, the lighting changes to bright spotlight when someone sings. The Brechtian posters announcing what will happen during a scene have been replaced by slides from a data projector thrown onto the back center stage wall. The lighting from the data projector and the blue-ish patterned background of the slide provide another eerie layer of light in between scenes. The data projector might have been used to even more creative Brechtian effect (more commentary on the action? more interruption?), and I also wondered why the full caption for each scene was not displayed.

Below stage left stands the piano, sheet music lit by a slightly orange light. Rolf Goebel (UAH professor of German) plays the excellent score. The piano sounds slightly tinny, which adds to the Brechtian use of music. The actors’ singing varies widely in quality. This is a good thing in epic theatre, since the audience should not be lulled into identification with the actor and should not romanticize through song. Other sound effects are either recorded (gun and cannon shots) or spoken. Piano and sound effects never upstage the actors. Sound in this production creates synergy.

As for the cast — they’re energetic, highly competent, and often inspired. Kate Chiroux wears Mother Courage like a second skin, never faltering in lines, movement, or song. This makes her a little bit too sympathetic and by the end of the play, we’re rooting for her more than we should be. This is true for the entire cast, none of whom plays in Brechtian style. That’s OK. To act the way Brecht prescribes has got to be a tough task, since it demands a counter-intuitive, postmodern commentary on one’s role. I read somewhere that the ideal Mother Courage acts as if she (the actress) is mad at the character. How does one achieve that?

Kattrin’s character, who is dumb, requires lots of physicality in order to communicate, and Elizabeth Baxley relies on her ballet background to traverse the stage. Her final scenes (banging on the drum to warn the village, laughing at the possibility of being killed, lying limp in Mother Courage’s arms) work well.

David Wood as the Chaplain and Shawn Tracey as the Cook both do admirable jobs with their singing and speaking parts. The whole cast works very well together. This indicates a fine director at work.

Go see Mother Courage and Her Children. It’s rare to catch a Brecht play, and UAH Theatre is proving to be a place to find good drama. This past summer, Meryl Streep as Mother Courage and Kevin Kline as the Cook performed at a free Central Park production directed by George C. Wolfe, with script newly translated by Tony Kushner. New York City has nothin’ on Huntsville!


“a primeval tide of toxins”

April 14, 2007

A Primeval Tide of Toxins,” the first of five parts in Ken Weiss’s Altered Oceans series, may keep me sleepless for a while. Weiss starts with this evil red stuff on the ocean floor of Australia’s Moreton Bay. It’s called fireweed and those who dare to fish in those waters when the fireweed blooms suffer “searing welts” on their skin, blistered lips, constricted breathing.

The thing about fireweed and other quickly growing and spreading bacterial organisms is not that they’re new products of modern pollution but that they’re ancient bacterial organisms flourishing in the polluted muck that kills off the organisms’ natural predators. Our oceans prove that rather than advancing, we’re in retrograde — to the tune of millions of years. Here’s Weiss:

In many places — the atolls of the Pacific, the shrimp beds of the Eastern Seaboard, the fiords of Norway — some of the most advanced forms of ocean life are struggling to survive while the most primitive are thriving and spreading. Fish, corals and marine mammals are dying while algae, bacteria and jellyfish are growing unchecked. Where this pattern is most pronounced, scientists evoke a scenario of evolution running in reverse, returning to the primeval seas of hundreds of millions of years ago.

Our pollution kills off the food we need and feeds the non-food that kills us. Part I clearly shows how each bit of our Earth connects with each other bit, because the pollution that dumps nitrogen and carbon into the oceans comes from fertilized farmlands, for instance, which runs off into the nearest river, like the Mississippi, and makes its way south to the ocean.

I’m on to Part II, although I’m not sure it’s good for my nerves. Doesn’t matter. That’s part of the problem — our huge mechanism of denial. Weiss states that we’ve believed for so long that the oceans are too vast to be affected by our polluting ways, but his series proves that, as he says, ” But over time, the accumulation of environmental pressures has altered the basic chemistry of the seas.”

The website for the Altered Oceans series offers video and photographs that I haven’t yet looked at. I’ll admit it: I’m scared to. I’ll leave you with the statistics that the front page offers:

  • 90% of worldwide stocks of tuna, cod and other big fish have disappeared in the last 50 years.
  • 650 gray whales have washed up sick or dead along the West Coast in the last seven years.
  • 150 oxygen-depleted “dead zones” have been identified in oceans around the world.
  • 75% of kelp forests off the Southern California coast, prime habitat for fish, have vanished in the last 50 years.
  • 97% of elkhorn and staghorn coral off Florida’s coast have disappeared since 1975.

altered oceans by kenneth r. weiss

April 14, 2007

I missed most of Thursday’s Fresh Air but caught a bit of the interview (“Trouble at 20,000 Leagues?“) with Kenneth R. Weiss, LA Times reporter, who wrote the series Altered Oceans with Usha Lee McFarling; the series has won a George Polk award. In the snippet I heard from Fresh Air, Weiss was talking about the increased acidity of the oceans and how that acidity disintegrates the shells of snails and other mollusks. Such sea inhabitants lose their ability to create their own homes.

One action people can take to help avoid extinction of ocean dwellers is to eat lower on the food chain. That is, eat shrimp instead of bluefin tuna or swordfish. Weiss said that muscles and oysters can regenerate quickly, but larger fish take much longer.

The first picture I see when I go to the Altered Oceans series at the LA Times just blows me away. (Rick Loomis does the photography and video.) A huge encrusted pipe spews dirty greenish waste into what looks like clearer and bluer ocean water. The series is in five parts. If we all read this series and paid attention, what changes could we effect?

champions for our rivers and oceans

April 1, 2007

In the Parable of the Sower we are in the year 2024 and water is more precious than oil. The scenario comes from science fiction by Octavia Butler, but we are already living water scarcity.

We ignore the pollution of our waters at our own peril, yet most of us remain ignorant. But there are some tireless champions who work every day to try and wake us up. I want to name two of those champions: Mimi Hughes and the Picton Castle.

I met Mimi in the summer of 2003 when we shared four weeks in a professional development seminar for teachers. Mimi was in my writing response group and that’s when I found out she’d swum to Russia. And that she was swimming the Tennessee River. Last summer, Mimi swam the Danube. You see, when Mimi leaves her high school reading classes, she dons her super hero swimsuit, gets inoculations against river bacteria, jumps in the water and swims. And swims. “My swim will be my pilgrimage,” Mimi says in her mission statement. She makes pilgrimages so that we will realize the following: “…we are abusing this great and beautiful resource. We are taking too much from it and giving too little in return.”

On the Kids’ Stuff section of Mimi’s Riverswim blog, we learn the following:

If all the water on earth could fit into a gallon milk jug, only one tablespoon of it would be fresh water. Of that tablespoon, nearly half is presently polluted.

Barque Picton CastleWhile Mimi swims freshwaters, the Picton Castle inhabits our oceans as she sails around the world. The barque Picton Castle is a Tall Ship and a training ship, and the website offers a powerful education through the Captain’s Log, crew journals, photos, and the WorldWise educational foundation.

Just this past January, a group of Mount Holyoke students spent their January term working on board. Read about their experience at the group blog.

The Picton Castle website now has a page dedicated to crew member Laura Gainey, whom I also wish to honor here as a champion for the seas. On 8 Dec. 2006 around 11 at night, Laura was swept overboard and was not recovered even after several days of exhaustive search efforts. Read the tributes to Laura and you’ll understand how much she loved the ocean. You’ll see her courage and that of every sailor. Even as the crew grieve, the Picton Castle continues its mission to educate the rest of us. We owe them all much gratitude. We can express that gratitude by becoming informed and taking action.