Tuesday, March 07, 2006

HSU’s “Mother Courage” was presented in the 110-seat Gist Hall Theatre. It is in one of the older buildings on campus, often too warm and stuffy, with the audience looking down on the stage from severely raked rows of seats. However, about half the seats are quite close to the stage.

Though this production sold out every performance (and Heckel mourned the days when plays received 12 performances over three weekends, instead of six over two), he chose this theatre over the larger Van Duzer. Heckel likes to stage large dramas in intimate circumstances. After all, he did both parts of Angels in America here, an amazing and memorable experience.

The set (by Jody Sekas) was magnificent, dominated by a raised, serpentine and circular ramp, representing the road (also depicted on a large faded map of central Europe, one of the evocative hangings on either side.) The actors pulled a cart up and down this very steep ramp, anchoring it in various places for the next scene. There was also a small central area (not unlike the mosh pit in the center of the Rolling Stone’s mouth-like ramp stage at the Super Bowl), where some action took place. A working scroll above the stage area reproduced the Brechtian titles, which tell you not only when and where the next scene is, but basically what will happen.

The cart was elaborate, and styled like a circus wagon, a motif echoed in some of other decorative elements, such as the stripes on the army’s tents depicted in a hanging.

Lila Nelson, a North Coast singer-songwriter, performer and recording artist with experience in theatre as a student here, wrote new music for Brecht’s songs. She also played piano in the accompanying band (guitar, bass, sax and cello.) Her music, folk and country-inflected, brought a distinctly American sound to the production.

Though the singing was uneven (due in part to technical problems and the placing of the band behind the performers which made it difficult for musicians and singers to hear each other well enough), there were outstanding moments. Bernadette Cheyne (HSU theatre professor and actor) as Mother Courage brought a Judy Collins quality to her songs (reminding me that Judy Collins had recorded a Kurt Weill composition), and her powerful rendering of a song about anger was the perfect end to the first act in this production.

With a combination of recitation and singing, Joshua Switzer’s song as the Cook in the second act was a standout, and the soldier’s sternly plaintive song, “A soldier has no time to wait,” was a sober counterpoint to the absurdity going on around him---an important and haunting moment, well conceived and executed. The singing of the young women (Jessica Brown, Renee Carney, Jolie Colby and Missy Hopper) playing peasants caught in the crossfire of death, was soaring and heart-rending, especially in combination with poetic staging, gesture and movement.

I saw the first performance of the second week (Thursday), and the second act on its final night (Saturday.) The text was presented well, and the movement and stage pictures were often striking. By Saturday, the acting was purified, stripped to its essence. On the whole, it was a success. But for me, some of the production’s problems and missed opportunity’s remained.

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