Oracle Productions. By Bertolt Brecht. Directed by Max Truax. With ensemble cast. 1hr 45mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Dan Jakes
The unadorned wooden planks and function-over-form look that accompanies Bertolt Brecht's deliberate and confrontational Verfremdungseffekt isn't so much an aesthetic luxury in Oracle Productions' storefront space as it is a mandate. Small, narrow and supported entirely on donations (the company's shows are free admission), the nonprofit's north Lakeview black box home doesn't lend itself exceptionally well to visual feats of realism or illusions.
No matter. Without much room to expand outward, director Max Truax and scenic designer Eleanor Kahn look upward, loading widow and revolutionary Pelage's (Katherine Keberlein) acts of government defiance among and above their audience on raised platforms. Apart from some simple wall adornments, the cast's imposing surround sound presence rendering Jonathan Guillen's original score does the most to create the populist atmosphere The Mother hinges upon.
Visually, the effect transforms would-be observers of Brecht's fiercely political protest play into passive participants, their little heads dotting the gaps between the feet of the eponymous mourner-turned-dissident and the officials hellbent on silencing her. Truax's production originally debuted to much fanfare last season, and even with the updated cast, it's a powerful call-to-action with a sharp edge and a stirring message.
Under the thumb of Tsar Nicholas II, Pavel (Rick Foresee), a desperate and rebellious young man from the working class, joins the rising labor movement aimed at reconciling class inequality. Fearing the worst for her son, Pelage begrudgingly takes up the cause on his behalf.
Obstacles in her way, besides the totalitarian discipline liberally doled out by an officer (DeChantel Kosmatka, icy and genuinely unsettling), include capitalist worship of unfettered control and a bourgeois deciding class who view discussions about "politics"—a glib term applied to all things inconvenient, including starvation—as a gaudy conversation subject beneath anyone not screwed over by its institutions. If the power of populism and the mixed blessing of successful capitalists sounds familiar (and not just because it's basically the theme of a certain awesome kids' movie), it should. Though it was written in 1930, The Mother is almost prescient in its insight into the modern U.S. economic debate.
Oh, and did I mention how great it sounds? Guillen's dissonant score and Nicholas Tonozzi's arrangements give emotional weight to the philosophical drama, and the cast, particularly Kate Staiger, enliven it with a rich collective voice. Take up arms, comrades. Brecht isn't often this affecting.