Chicago Theater Review: THE MOTHER (Oracle)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 2, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


This is Brecht’s real Mother Courage, not “Canteen Anna,” the pointless survivor of the cautionary later play who thrives on war (which, Brecht implies, capitalism does as well). Written in 1930, The Mother is an unashamed piece of agitprop, a more driven and optimistic successor to The Threepenny Opera of the year before. Oracle’s welcome revival of its much-praised, in-your-face 2013 production is inflammatory, incendiary, incandescent, and consistently explosive.

Zachary Baker-Salmon and Katherine Keberlein (with ensemble in the background) in Oracle's THE MOTHER. Photo by Ben Fuchsen.

Performed on huge, high tables with the audience sandwiched between, Max Truax’s rampaging 105-minute staging reinvents what Brecht rightly called his “Lehrstucke” or “learning play.” Indicting the capitalist corruption of the last days of the Weimar Republic, this portrait of pre-revolutionary Romanov Russia equally anticipates the Nazi crackdown on dissent of any shade. Employing exciting new melodies by Jonathan Guillen to Brecht’s still rabble-rousing lyrics (to replace Hans Eisler’s original anthems), Nicholas Tonozzi’s musical direction is the kinetic and enthralling powerhouse behind Oracle Productions’ pile-driving protest play.

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

Here in (great) effect Brecht delivers a parable of poverty. He depicts the radicalization of the title character, a widow whose instinct to protect her radical socialist son from the authorities awakens her to the greater cause for which he gives everything. That cause gradually morphs from armed rebellion to anti-war agitation against the war with Germany, seen by the socialists as a capitalist scheme to create a market in death. Brecht’s series of 15 scenes (originally 17) are intensified by the usual Brechtian “alienation” devices. A silent-screen video backdrop depicts the actual proletarian protests, announcing locales and action.

DeChantel Kosmotka and Katherine Keberlein (with ensemble in the background) in Oracle's THE MOTHER. Photo by Ben Fuchsen.

That action sees Pelagea Vlassova (radiant Katherine Keberlein) struggling to save her son Pavel (Rick Foresee) from the Tsar’s brutal crackdown on Communists. This illiterate peasant gradually gets drawn into the Bolshevik movement: passing out leaflets attacking the “swamp fever” that the factory produces; defying the scab “rats” who defy their strike; helping with the printing press; and castigating the odious Christian mothers who preach that God will provide so the employers needn’t. Slowly Pelagea learns to read and to spell out CLASS STRUGGLE for the marchers’ signs.

Cody Proctor, Katherine Keberlein, Eli Branson and Stephanie Polt in Oracle's THE MOTHER. Photo by Ben Fuchsen.

A strike over a reduction of pay of two kopeks meets with ugly repression: Pavel flees to Finland with tragic results. Along the way Pelagea has illuminating encounters with a refractory Teacher (Cody Proctor), a helpful Butcher’s Wife (Kate Staiger), and Pavel’s leftist comrades (Stephanie Polt, Zachary Baker-Salmon, Havalah Grace, Yael Wartens, Eli Branson, and Jamie Bragg). Lurking perilously close to every scene is the evil Commissioner (DeChantel Kosmatka), agent of merciless counter-revolution who wields a very busy revolver.

Eli Branson being held by Katherine Keberlein in Oracle's THE MOTHER. Photo by Eleanor Kahn.Encouraging the workers to “turn the state over,” the marching music, including songs of “Solidarity,” “What To Do,” and “Praise of Learning,” is glorious or galvanizing. Likewise this stirring production, a real blast from the past that demands to be felt anew. In the spirit of the show, tickets are free for all.

photos by Eleanor Kahn
and Ben Fuchsen

The Mother
Oracle Productions
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N Broadway
scheduled to end on March 1, 2014
for tickets (free to the public) visit
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