Theater review by Adam Feldman
In the nearly half-century that it has been creating postmodern experimental theater, the Wooster Group, somewhat surprisingly, has never mounted a show by the German alienationist Bertolt Brecht until now. Its choice of plays, less surprisingly, is a curiosity. Brecht wrote one extremely famous show about a mother in a sacrificial relationship with her offspring, and the Woosters are not doing that one; instead they have chosen The Mother (a learning play), a dramatic exercise in Communist propaganda that Brecht wrote with the explicit goal of radicalizing working-class German women. Adapted from a novel by Maxim Gorky, the play is like a photonegative of Mother Courage: an optimistic paean to Marxism rather than a cynical critique of profiteering, with a central character who is unambiguously heroic and clear-sighted.
Elizabeth LeCompte’s production appoints Brecht’s little red schoolhouse of a play with trappings familiar to Wooster fans. That is even truer than usual, because—“in the spirit of repurposing”—everything in the show (except two props) has already appeared in a previous Wooster production. With her customary supreme precision, Kate Valk plays the title role: Pelagea Vlasov, a poor and illiterate Russian woman who is drawn into the workers’ struggle via the underground revolutionary activism of her son, Pavel. He is portrayed by Gareth Hobbs, who also provides keyboard accompaniment for the play’s many brief and jagged songs by Brecht and composer Hanns Eisler, which have names like “Song of the Patches and Coat” and “Praise of Communism.” (The production includes original music by Amir EISaffar as well.) All of the other roles are handled by company regulars Ari Fliakos and Erin Mullin and the distinctive Jim Fletcher, who cut his teeth in the blunt downtown antitheater of Richard Maxwell.
On a set that looks like they’re in a tech rehearsal, with a wide back screen of industrial-wasteland video by Irfan Brkovic, the actors move assuredly through 11 scenes. There are moments of dry comedy, both in the play itself—Pelagea turns her invisibility as a middle-aged woman to her advantage on several occasions—and in the layers of references and inside jokes that the production paints on top of it. (Offstage video monitors with clips of old films provide some gestural cues for the actors.) Perhaps because Brecht’s text is so frankly pedagogical and presentational, The Mother (a learning play) does not quite have the sense of enigma and the frisson of distance between the material and the house style that characterize my favorite past Wooster shows; the trade-off is that it will likely feel more accessible to those who have not been following LeCompte and company for years. It may not go deep, but it’s a fine introduction.
The Mother (a learning play). Performing Garage (Off Broadway). By Bertolt Brecht. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. With Kate Valk, Jim Fletcher, Ari Fliakos, Erin Mullen, Gareth Hobbs. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission.