Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "The Theater of Evolving Wonderment" (on Bertolt Brecht's The Mother, as interpreted by The Wooster Group)

the theater of evolving wonderment

by Douglas Messerli


Bertolt Brecht The Mother as directed by Elizabeth LeCompte and composed by The Wooster Group / the production I saw with was at Redcat, Los Angeles on February 12th, 2023


News media theater and film reviewers often, it seems to me, begin their essays with the belief that those to whom they are writing are mentally challenged. Indeed, we might suspect that many of our fellow countrymen and women of today, given the numerous Maga theories that float through the imaginations of so many millions of Americans, do have some perceptive disabilities. But certainly, any of those individuals who might wish to attend a play by the rightfully lauded Wooster Group are generally fully “woke” and educated, at least from my Los Angeles experiences. And there seems to be no need, as did The New York Times in their 2021 review of The Wooster Group’s The Mother by Bertolt Brecht, to warn my readers—had this production had a long and extended run in which audiences might have visited the play after my review—that their plays "can be less involving to experience than to discuss with your friends in a doomed attempt to figure out what the company was trying to do.”

     If ever a company has explained and openly demonstrated their methodologies and viewpoints of how their theatrical productions might be perceived, it is this company! And Brecht, with his demands for a distancing of his audiences from Aristotelian perquisites for a complete immersion of the reader in the drama’s time and place, is a perfect match for The Wooster Group’s approach to drama. They do not so much deconstruct theatrical works as open them up  for public inspection, asking their audiences to help in exploring their significance and how best to convey that. And rather than allowing that process to become only an intellectual exercise, they laugh and joke through the surgery pointing out, sometimes, their own flaws and limitations as theatrical doctors, conceivers, and performers.

     Surely this is why those who have seen a couple of their productions keep coming back for more and more, this play representing my viewing of at least 12 of their works over the years. Admittedly, I too have found my head reeling with the hundreds of structural connections they point out in their productions, but I have never left the theater disinterested, feeling uninvolved, or utterly confused—although I always find it rewarding to discuss any cultural experience with friends.

     Indeed, like a gentle, if somewhat frustrated teacher—much like the character which he primarily plays—Jim Fletcher begins the work by explaining that this is a play by German writer Bertolt Brecht written in collaboration with others (Hanns Eisler, Slatan Dudow, and G√ľnther Weisenborn) based on the fiction by Maxim Gorky, which Vladimir Lenin read before publication and even suggested some improvements, Fletcher arguing in an aside that the Founding Head of Soviet Russia was in fact literary as well. Throughout the play, moreover, Fletcher, both as an actor separate from and playing his character comments on elements of the work, jokes about Brecht’s own emotional expressions in the lyrics of the several songs included within the play, and points out facts that we may not have immediately noticed.

     The other characters, particularly the central figure Pelegea Viasov (the always brilliant actor Kate Valk), the Mother of the title, spend most of the play learning, which involves the audience in the process of coming to comprehend what Communism and activism means so that if we had any questions about why her son Pavel (Scott Shepherd) heads up a small unit that prints leaflets advocating that the workers should go on strike, we most certainly are told fairly straight-forwardly why this is necessary. Brecht subtitled the work, “a learning play,” and it is precisely that, a play which takes out time from the plot to explain to us through words, music (a contemporary jazz-influenced score by Amir Elsaffar and parts of the original music by Hanns Eisler), and sometimes just gibberish—which at moments is what Brecht’s song lyrics come to when translated into everyday English—what the issues of the play signify.

      Instead of simply grousing about the cost of meat and the fact that 5 rubles a week have been taken out of her son Pavel’s wages, Pavel’s comrades Semjon (the ever-versatile Ari Fliakos) and Masha (Erin Mullin), once the Mother has determined to help them disseminate their leaflets—mostly to protect her son—realize it is time to explain to the illiterate woman what those flyers actually said.

      At first, like many a conservative who supports the repressive status quo, she defends the rights of the factory owner to pay as much as he wants, to fire individuals, or even get rid of his entire working staff at will. If her table belongs to her and she might do as she wants with it, doesn’t the factory owned by that individual have the right to equally do with it as he wants? It takes some doing for the revolutionary pair to explain to her the differences between a table or a chair and a factory, which involves other beings in order to even maintain its meaning. What good is a factory without its workers? If he were to fire them, the factory would simply go to rot, cease to exist. A table doesn’t need people to be housed and fed. 

     The next step is their attempt to explain to her why a strike can have an effect, and make it clear that simply because it is a peaceful strike does not mean that the Czar and his police will not take violent means to quell it, a lesson she immediately learns as she marches with the strikers and when the factory representative is shot, takes up the red flag in his stead.


      From that moment on, Pelegea Viasov comes alive as a thinker. Housed for her own safety in the teacher’s apartment, she is soon gathering the neighbors in his kitchen, attempting to teach them what she has learned. But like her, they are illiterate and cannot understand the new words she now uses. 

      Complaining of the visitors in his house, the teacher himself is soon convinced by the wily Mother to teach them how to read, and in the process, given their questions about his methods and knowledge, he too learns from his students, himself becoming a more passive link in the revolutionary process. Before he even gets the opportunity to protest, Mother has turned his house into the revolutionary printing shop.

       Meanwhile, Pavel has been imprisoned, and his Mother visits him mostly to learn the names of the peasant strikers throughout the country with whom their group might connect. And before we can even react to the suddenness of her role in the Communist cause, she has brought the revolutionary forces together to bring about significant, if, alas, only temporary change—given the alterations in everyone’s lives brought about by World War I. Pavel is shot at the Finnish border. And so it ends somewhat sadly, but with the recognition, if nothing else, that people can change, that ideas do effect human beings in a way that can truly alter their lives.


      And that idea alone is perhaps one of the most significant realizations that those of us who daily feel frustrated and complain about what’s happening in our world can make. Brecht used the mother to help bring his own German audiences to realize that Hitler’s rising armies could in fact be defeated if only they could bring themselves to act and share the truth with their fellow countrymen. Obviously, his ideas were something to be greatly feared by the Nazis, who even arrested the woman who played The Mother in the first production, Helene Weigel. And Brecht finally had to escape himself from a country that remained passive, emigrating to the very city, Los Angeles, wherein I watched two days ago, this Wooster Group production that presents the same lessons for a new age.

      Yes, their theater has a kind of revolutionary impulse in that in asks its audiences to think along with its performers about the meaning of things, behind which obviously lies director Elizabeth LeCompte’s and the many founding members of the group’s belief that through thinking, through ideas people can change and make other things happen.

     But far more importantly, I believe, is their commitment to the enjoyment of that process, to way they “play,” almost like children as much as actors, along the way, themselves learning and unlearning their art in front of us all. The great joy of the plays brought to us by The Wooster Group, is the sort of wonderment the actors themselves demonstrate in their unique operations upon the logistics of presenting a play such as The Mother, as they themselves move around the sets and props, find spaces on the cluttered stage in which to enact their parts, and sometimes wander off or even disappear behind scrims, as Valk does late in this play.

     At one point in The Mother they stop the play, ask for the lights to be turned up, and go to work in cleaning up the mess an intrusive policeman has made to show his dominance. This is precisely what the people who are left behind after authority attempts to destroy their worlds are forced to do, clean up the mess and move on with their everyday lives. And even more importantly, the survivors of those who would like to control them learn how to deflect, move around, and ultimately even change the minds of those who wish to circumscribe their lives, sharing that knowledge with their neighbors, just as Mother does.

       When I was very young, I already had developed without my even knowing how to describe it, a love for theater. I would engage my childhood friends in dialogues and conversations that we made up through our imaginations as we acted them out. I remember one time visiting one of my fellow child thespians at his home, and when he asked what I wanted to do, I answered “Let’s play “play.” His mother, overhearing me, sternly rose to her full stature, looking down at me to correct my behavior: “In this house we do not use babytalk!” What she didn’t comprehend is that, given the limitations of my 5- or 6-year-old vocabulary, I wasn’t spouting nonsense but was trying to explain the game of theater, of playing as if we were creating a play or a performance; I already comprehended theater as a process that was aware of its own creation.

      Although they begin with a standard script, that is how I see The Wooster Company performers coming to their art, representing the process of “playing with” the very play they have chosen to perform, and through it arriving at a destination that is engaging both to them and those who watch them do it. “The Mother” is not a realist representation of a revolutionary worker, but an exploration in how a real mother learned to engage herself in the art of being someone else, who expanded and engaged with richer and richer roles as she proceeded in the drama of her life.

       If you like that kind of theater, the theater of evolving wonderment, then The Wooster Group’s version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Mother is a work you’ll want to see if you ever get a chance. Let us hope, as they have done with others of their works, they can transform it to video so that a much larger audience can seek it out.


Los Angeles, February 14, 2023