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Cards on table: I love me some Scena. Have for years.
I certainly haven’t loved or even responded to everything the company’s assayed, but all critics have at least one theater they consistently find themselves pulling for, just that extra little bit. Scena’s mine.
I just plain like what Scena brings to D.C.: a chance to guzzle exigent, uncompromising theater straight from the hose, featuring a house blend of new international playwrights alongside more familiar voices of the gloom-soaked, ghost-haunted Old World: Havel, Capek, Beckett, Brecht, Sartre, Kafka. And they can generally be counted on to serve it up with style: Watching their gorgeous, and gorgeously twisted, production of Genet‘s The Maids back in ’07, I kept thinking how much the insufferably pretentious 15-year-old me would have loved the mere fact of Scena’s existence.
Think about it: Right now, there’s an awkward, affected teenage twerp pretending to read Being and Nothingness for the third time in the darkness of his Falls Church bedroom. That kid need only hop on the Orange Line to find his people and get his head fed. This, I humbly posit, is a beautiful thing.
Said teen might eat up their current production of Mother Courage and Her Children with a big ol’ spoon, and as a primer on Brechtian style and theme, it serves nicely. But the move to the Clark Street Playhouse, much bigger than Scena’s previous digs at Warehouse, seems to have watered down the soup.
How else to explain why what should be a searing evening of theater comes off here as merely mordant and shapeless? Because on paper, it can’t miss: You got Brecht‘s barbed portrait of a woman who prizes the opportunistic and ruthless capitalism of wartime over the lives of her children. It’s anchored by Nancy (“Oh, SHE’S in it? I’ll call the box office”)Robinette. It’s directed by the shrewd Gabriele Jakobi, who infused that production of The Maids with its scabrous beauty, and who here has encouraged her perfomers to prize the humanity—-and the humor—-of Brecht’s language over its penchant for the preachy.
Certainly Kryztov Lindquist‘s milquetoasty chaplain is fun to watch, and Jennifer Belle Deal brings an appealing no-bullshit carnality to camp follower Yvette. As Courage’s mute daughter Kattrin, Colleen Delany gets several nice bits of business, none better than the sequence in which she furtively tries on Yvette’s strumpety red heels. Robinette’s is the kind of rounded, keenly intelligent performance for which she’s known; her Courage is brittle, quick to anger and completely oblivious to the fact that the war which is fattening her wallet is eating her soul.
Yet the production itself lets them down by not offering up its own take on the play; we keep waiting for some point of view, some organizing principle to manifest—-something, that is, beyond “War is bad.” What, exactly, is Scena bringing to this production, besides throwing all its pieces together on a stage the size of a soccer field? I couldn’t tell you. But because the staging lacks an identity of its own, each scene arrives with an equal emphasis—-and when you’re flatly asserting everything, of course, you’re really asserting nothing. Having the actors sing against pre-recorded music (which tends to get swallowed up by Clark Street’s Costco-like acoustics) injects a tinny artificiality that Brecht probably would have liked, but it serves only to distance us from the proceedings even further.
Mother Courage and Her Children
By Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Gabriele Jakobi
Misic by Paul Dessau; Additional compositions by Achim Giesler
Produced by Scena Theatre
At the Clark Street Playhouse to July 5