Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Biscuits for Sale

When trying to market our fair city to visitors and new arrivals, it only makes sense to tailor the message to the intended audience.

And not in an obvious way, say, "Richmond is Rainbow-Friendly!" but in more of a "Virginia is for ALL Lovers" manner that shows a bit of subtlety. Target your audience and speak to them in their language.

So if you were attempting to attract theater-loving types, one sure-fire way to alert them to what a thriving and stellar theater scene awaits them here would be to simply say, "This is a town that produces "Mother Courage and Her Children."

Because, despite Bertolt Brecht's play being considered the greatest play of the 20th century and easily the finest anti-war play ever written, let's get real here: almost no one produces it.

Yet here we are, with the reliably adventurous TheatreLAB (because who else would have done it, a rhetorical thought I noted in chalk on the bathroom wall before the action even began tonight) leading off their season with this epic and thoroughly immersive play.

Going down the rabbit hole of the Thirty Years War began when Mac and I walked in the door and, along with a guy in line behind us, were directed to a nearby soldier (the quarter mistress) issuing "kits" - a folding chair and a list of instructions, including specifications on staying inside the green lines on the floor.

A drill sergeant hammered in directions for what to do when "About face!" "Left face!"or "Right face!" was screamed at us (it involved moving our entire chairs in that direction) throughout the show.

In the name of Style Weekly's Best of Issue, I once dubbed TheatreLAB the "most shape-shifting theater space" and tonight it could have also been labeled "most malleable focal point" for its constant shifts in action.

All that chair turning resulted in the sound of clattering empty bottles knocked over in the dark every time the group moved en masse to see what the Catholics and the Protestants ("Cooks have an intellectual bent, unlike clergy") were doing to each other next.

It was eerie how contemporary the 77-year old play managed to feel.

When one of Mother Courage's sons asked of her, "Mother, may I smack him in the puss?" about a recruitment officer baiting him, some of the younger audience members gasped at the word "puss," as if it were related to where the Republican nominee feels free to grab.

Alright, listen up, kids: the puss is located much higher on the body than that other feline-nicknamed body part. Got that?

When the lights came up at intermission, the buzz was palpable. The man next to us - who'd come from Charlottesville to see the production - the people behind us, everyone was sharing how utterly caught up and enthralled they were with what we'd seen so far.

Like me, few had seen it before.

Appropriating rap, folk and popular music to underpin Brecht's song lyrics, the play's soundtrack couldn't have felt more modern. That the actors were accompanied by piano, guitar and violin only added to the musical punch (and my theory that some people don't get handed just one talent, but many).

Boomie Pedersen was a marvel as Mother Courage, shoring up one child while praising another for being honest, if stupid, constantly focused on making a living off the contents of her cart, a fanciful looking thing that was wheeled from one side of the Basement to the other.

Director Keri Wormald made sure it was tough to like Mother's character but impossible not to be impressed with her ability to keep on keeping on, no matter how many children she lost to the decades of fighting that sustained her and her family.

A potent reminder of the price paid in war, the riveting play delivered a powerful message without beating the audience over the head with it and ended with scrolls being dropped sharing the toll of war in terms of financial cost, sexually transmitted diseases, traumatic stress disorder and more unsettling realities.

Who does that? Who delivers a fabulous performance of an important yet under-produced play and then closes it out by further stunning the audience with facts and figures about the continuing cost of war?

TheatreLAB, duh. No longer an upstart, they have fully arrived.

Can the legions of theater fans be far behind?


  1. This post has touched a nerve.

    In the late 60s, when I was “coming of age” I was an avid theater-goer and our most prominent theater in Minneapolis (The Guthrie) regularly performed Brecht plays: The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht on Brecht, and a simply stunning version of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The last line of Ui is particularly appropo for these times:
    "Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again."

    These were challenging and well-attended productions.

    That all ended when Nixon was elected.

  2. How fortunate for you to have seen so much Brecht produced. Finally, Richmond's theater scene is almost as cool as Minneapolis' was in the late '60s...and not a moment too soon given the times!

  3. The really funny thing is that era of "leftist" drama was the only time the Guthrie Theater didn't rely on subsidies!

    They haven't done Brecht since then.

  4. Too bad! I was blown away by what I experienced last night and I feel fortunate to have a young theater company wiling to take on leftist works like Mother Courage and leave the audience with lots to mull over.