Chicago Theater Remount: THE MOTHER (Oracle)

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by Tony Frankel on December 27, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


My annual theater sojourn to the Windy City this year was a bit of a let down. Spoiled by previous pilgrimages, in which no less than 50% of the theater I saw astounded me, this trip yielded scant results (excepting a few great musical revivals). The final show of 30 that I saw changed all that. Max Truax’s production of Brecht’s The Mother (with original music by Jonathan Guillen) was not only the highlight of my trip, but is now forever cemented as one of the greatest theatrical experience of my lifetime, and certainly the best production of a Brecht play. Stage and Cinema’s writer Paul Kubicki says it all in the following reprinted review, but effusive verbiage fails to describe the masterful direction of Mr. Truax. His guidance is a template of theatrical imagination on a shoestring budget. Not one director in Los Angeles even comes close to the work of this genius (there, I said it). Now, Oracle is offering a remount of The Mother, which will run January 23 to March 1, 2014 and admission is free in Oracle’s Public Access Theater. Go. This truly is the mother of American Theater.

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Workers and theatergoers of Chicago unite! Oracle Theatre is mounting a rousing defense of Karl Marx and the Bolsheviks, and demands your undivided attention. Though my experience is admittedly limited in the realm of communist Zachary Baker-Salmon and Katherine Keberlein (with ensemble in the background) in Oracle's THE MOTHER. Photo by Ben Fuchsen.propaganda, The Mother is not only the best agitprop I’ve seen to date, but it packs a real emotional punch.

Bertold Brecht’s iconic tale depicts a tense pre-Revolution, pre-war Russia. We follow the eponymous mother — who goes red as soon as Marxism is finally explained to her — as she climbs the ranks of Bolshevik resistance inspired by her impoverished son’s oppressive factory wages. Written during Hitler’s ascension, The Mother (translated by Steve Gooch) may not be as well-written as Mother Courage and Her Children, but Oracle capitalizes on the full range of the piece’s dramatic potential.

Cody Proctor, Katherine Keberlein, Eli Branson and Stephanie Polt in Oracle's THE MOTHER. Photo by Ben Fuchsen.This success is primarily to the credit of the brilliant Max Truax’ direction. Even within the scope of the experimental Brechtian style, Truax is staggeringly innovative. The audience sits on stools between a series of wooden tables (set by Eleanor Kahn). The actors either crouch beneath the tables — surreptitiously handing out pamphlets — or stand on top, proselytizing about the virtues of the working class struggle. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Truax does more than utilize his space, he creates it, expands it, and bends it to his liking. His staging is a lesson in what beauty can come from breaking all the right rules. (Stage and Cinema’s Editor-in-Chief Tony Frankel noted Truax as “brilliant” in his review of Brand, but at the risk of sounding redundant, I concur wholeheartedly.)

His leadership clearly inspired the crackerjack design team: Jeremy Clark’s video design — an homage to silent movies of the era, including scene-defining intertitles — is projected on both sides of the audience; Eric Van Tassell’s side lighting creates the shadows familiar to German Expressionism; Joan Pritchard’s realistic costumes Eli Branson being held by Katherine Keberlein in Oracle's THE MOTHER. Photo by Eleanor Kahn.are effective even as they eschew the highly-stylized outfits common to Brecht; and the angular whiteface make-up (uncredited) is right out of Wiene’s influential film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

Truax finds support in a wholly committed, entirely engaging cast. Their passion for the material is infectious. I was ready to leap from my seat and clasp hands with other spectators. Some viewers even began to sing along; and they easily can, thanks to the haunting simplicity of Jonathan Guillen’s score (arranged with Musical Director Nicholas Tonozzi); by steering clear of unnecessary intricacies, Guillen’s nuances make Brecht’s lyrics even more effective.

DeChantel Kosmotka and Katherine Keberlein (with ensemble in the background) in Oracle's THE MOTHER. Photo by Ben Fuchsen.While this production might have been even more timely a few months back when the Occupy Movement was in full swing, Oracle manages to commandeer on the economic and political frustration leftover from the recent Great Recession (which can now be called the Not As Great But Possibly Perpetual Recession). What The Mother portends is that the little-theater-that-could really can, and often does, but that its success is wildly bolstered by Truax’s involvement in any given production. With The Mother, this little Public Access theater is at its best, and can easily contend with the best of Chicago. No, scratch that; The Mother is the best that Chicago theater has to offer. [Reviewed by Paul Kubicki on May 14, 2013.]

The ensemble of Oracle's THE MOTHER. Photo by Eleanor Kahn.

photos by Eleanor Kahn and Ben Fuchsen

The Mother
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N Broadway
remount plays January 23-March 1, 2014
Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Monday nights at 8PM
Sundays at 7PM (dates vary)
tickets are pay-what-you-want
make reservations at Public Access Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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