Review: In Wooster Groups Staging Of Brechts ‘The Mother, Techno Postmodernism Turns Political

Review: In Wooster Groups Staging Of Brechts ‘The Mother, Techno Postmodernism Turns Political

The Wooster Group and Bertolt Brecht might seem like odd neighbors, but the experimental New York band's production of The Mother, a "study piece" by Brecht, made me wonder why the band dragged on for so long.

The aesthetic differences should not be ignored, but there is a surprising level of harmony in their innovative theatrical techniques. Techno-postmodernism finds its political heart at REDCAT, where group Wooster return for five days of performances of Mother on Wednesday.

Brecht's epic theater grew out of traditional Aristotelian formulas. The intention was not to captivate audiences with emotional storytelling. Rather, the mission was to make viewers aware of the reality that their society was as fictional and fluid as the drama they were watching.

Instead of catharsis, Brecht longed for critical awareness. To achieve this goal, he developed a series of distancing techniques, or dissociation effects, aimed at destroying the attractiveness of the performance and exposing the mechanism of theatrical illusion.

The Wooster Group has been delighting audiences with its avant-garde style for decades. The company's multimedia collages, which often mix iconic treasures with kitschy jewellery, helped disrupt assumptions of theatrical sensibility. The stage is removed to allow audiences to reconnect with long-hidden opportunities, traditions, and practices.

In recent years, the Wooster group has attempted to revitalize itself and breathe new life into a studied artist or work by turning to key figures of the 20th century - Tennessee Williams, Thaddeus Cantor, Harold Pinter. Paying homage to visionary Polish artist Kantor, "pink chairs (rather than fake antiques)" seemed a natural symbiosis of sentiment. The Wooster troupe thrived in Vieux Carré, Williams' somewhat somber 1977 play, often wrongly sidelined alongside the playwright's other rebellious late works.

I was afraid that "Mother" would repeat the mistake of "The Room", the company's rendition of Pinter's early one-act plays, which would only reveal a remarkable lack of poetry. But Brecht's acting was theoretically and practically acceptable to Wooster group leader Elisabeth Lecompte and her experienced company, led by Kate Walk in the title role.

Based on Maxim Gorki's 1906 novel of the same name, “Mother” emerged from the economic turmoil of the early 1930s and attempted to teach its audience the morals of class warfare. The cause clearly defended by Brecht is the mobilization of the workers. Marxism determines the pedagogical orientation of the play. But it is not a high intellectual formation. The method is unprecedented in human terms.

Short scenes are interspersed with songs. Tear down the fourth wall to eliminate the separation between actor and audience. The work does not require participation, but there is a sense that we are together in this confusion and that sustained collective action is the only answer.

Valk plays Pelageya Vlasova, a middle-aged Russian widow who lives with her son Pavel (Scott Shepherd), a factory worker whose salary is constantly being cut. Even the thrifty Pelagia do not tolerate watery soup for long. They have to pay rent and the factory management doesn't care if the factory workers and their families go hungry.

The illiterate Pelageya, who is suspicious of political action at the beginning of the play, happens to become an activist who distributes leaflets in which she calls for a strike. Her mission is to protect her son who has befriended revolutionary fighters (played by Ori Fliakos and Erin Mullin). He fears for his safety, but the more brutal the state he encounters, the more he wants to overthrow the existing system.

After her son is jailed for taking part in a protest, he is unknowingly taken in by the teacher (Jim Fletcher), who offers him a safe haven on the condition that he keeps his disturbing politics out of his apartment. He quickly taught him and his friends to read and write pamphlets to help them in their class struggle.

"Mother" evokes a more direct emotional response than Brecht's more complex dramatic works such as "Mother Courage and Her Children," written for a more traditional theater audience a few years later. I couldn't help but wish for more emotional energy from the Wooster clan aside from political vibes with their usual tongue-in-cheek attitude.

The use of microphones, recorded voices and lip-synched footage prevents us from immersing ourselves in the story without thinking. This extra opacity can understandably be frustrating for the uninitiated. (The Wooster band is not for beginners.)

But the play's importance is evident in the strong, determined face of Pelageya Valka, who dispassionately recognizes that a world without economic justice is itself a prison.

Pelegia was once fearful of legal troubles and is now the first to raise the workers' flag. A major line of the play, not featured in the Clan Wuster film adaptation, is faintly foreshadowed by Volk's character's lingering awareness: "Do not fear death so much, fear an inadequate life."

Amir El-Safar composed the new music, an atonal jazz with Shepard playing keyboards while Pavel transitions into spoken song. Fletcher sometimes acts as narrator and commentator, making for a smooth transition.

Cultural Stew has influences from the Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s, particularly in Fliakos' mannerisms and vocal rhythm. But Brecht, postmodernized, succeeds. "Mother" still speaks with the clarity of a battle where, as Pelageya shows, one is never too old or too insignificant to join her.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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