Powerful Belousova Stars inBrecht's'Courage'

John Freedman, 28.03.2012
I was walking tothe metro after seeing Mikhail Levitin's production of“Courage“ for the Hermitage Theater, and Ipassed byayoung couple.

“What did you think?“ Iheard the young man ask his female companion.

„Idon't know,” she said without prejudice.

„Idon't know either,” the young man quickly responded, almost with relief inhis voice.

Levitin, Ithink, would bepleased tohear that. Heknows what the next step is: aconversation, acoming-to-terms that might last 10minutes or10days. The point isthat this couple did not leave the show behind when they walked out ofthe theater. They took itwith them, and itwould take some time before they really knew what they had experienced.

I'm with those kids. Levitin's rendition ofBertolt Brecht's “Mother Courage and Her Children” isoften irritating. Itisloud, shrill and long. Much ofithappens onthe front edge ofthe stage, sothat dust, debris and spittle rain down onthose inthe front rows. Characters grunt and croak and continually make weird ululating sounds asifthey are ready toburst out yodeling. There issomething subhuman about many ofthem, and acouple ofthem, dammit, get onyour nerves.

Inshort, this isnot the kind ofshow you come away from with agrin onyour face and praise burbling onyour lips.

Itnever tries tobethat.

Brecht wrote this, one ofhis most enduring plays, about ahardscrabble woman trying tokeep three children alive during the 30Years' War inthe early 17th century. She isanopportunist who profits off ofwar bycatering tothose who wage it. With her canteen wagon, she follows the war where itgoes, suffering the indignities that soldiers throw ather while selling them everything they will buy.

Levitin gave the play abroader twist. His “Courage”— the Russian variant ofwhich actually means something like “spirit“ or„joie devivre”— isless aplay about war than anasty, aggressive, corrupt world, inwhich there are few, ifany, ways tosurvive with dignity.

While the main stage atthe Hermitage isunder reconstruction, “Courage” plays onthe large stage atthe Fomenko Studio.

Designer Harry Hummel aided Levitin's shift away from the specifics ofwar inhis installation-like set design. Atowering cage stands atcenter stage and ishung with crude, loosely woven ropes and, perhaps, scalps. Acircular wind machine inone corner and aconjoined pair ofwagon wheels inanother are the only hints atMother Courage's food cart, although they are never used specifically for that purpose. Acrude, thick woven rug lies downstage, and itishere where most ofthe action takes place, threads and lint flying inthe air asthe actors trample itinto aknotted mess over the course ofthe evening.

Darya Belousova, aleading actress atthe Hermitage for 25years, turns inone ofher most powerful performances asMother Courage. She isthe embodiment ofawoman who knows weakness isdeath; therefore, strength issomething you stubbornly cling to. Infact, itissomething you manufacture out ofnothing ifyou lose it. This makes Belousova's Courage ahard, hard woman, but she also provides convincing and endearing flashes ofvulnerability, especially inthe company ofher mute daughter Kattrin (Irina Bogdanova) orher sometimes beau, the company cook (Sergei Oleksyak).

There are some excellent individual performances.

This includes Bogdanova, especially inthe final scene asshe stands inafield above acity and silently agonizes over whether she should let the townspeople know aninvasion isimminent. Boris Romanov, playing aweak and highly compromised priest, delivers abrilliant monologue, inwhich his character feebly, though eloquently, attempts tojustify the notion ofwar byassuring usthat the bliss ofpeace may exist even inbattle.

Inthe episodic role ofapeasant woman fearing for the life ofher infant, Alla Chernykh arguably brings usthe most emotional, heartfelt moments ofthe performance. Olga Levitina provides some masterful scenes ofcomic grotesque asIvetta, Mother Courage's friend and rival inlove. And Galina Morachyova nails her single scene asthe aged Mother Courage who must look back onalife inwhich none ofher children survived.

Levitin's “Courage” rarely entertains. Chances are, though, itwill get you thinking.

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