Mother Courage and Her Children
Shakespeare and Company forged a new professional relationship in 2012 when Artistic Director Tony Simotes brought one of his former teachers into the company mix: Olympia Dukakis starred in his production of "The Tempest" in the role of Prospera, the female version of Shakespeare's hero Prospero. She was dynamite and she gave the play a new and different resonance as her goals for herself and her daughter altered in this female orientation.
Simotes was pleased with his choice, and the actress was pleased with hers. They started a conversation about a second season and in fact came up with another role of alteration, the title part in Bertoldt Brecht's 1941 play "Mother Courage and Her Children."
This may seem like a major departure from the company's usual fare and from its mission, but it really isn't all that different. "It's like the top of Mt. Everest," Simotes said in a group interview recently. "You just have to get to it someday. Also, the concept of a classical theater, such as ours is, needs to change and grow, and Brecht and Shakespeare -- it's a very natural combination as both are classic."
Brecht's Epic Theater of alienation is not much different from Shakespeare's histories, moving you from one incident to another without involving you emotionally in the proceedings. And for this company alienation has never been in the cards as the actors on their three-quarter thrust stage are often playing from within the audience anyway. And for Dukakis, who has already done four productions of this play, the sense of alienation has moved off into the distance with this production.
"As a director Tony is an iconoclast," she said in the same group interview, "while my last director, twenty years ago, was a traditionalist. Tony has me and the rest of the company all over the place here. You can't get away from us and Tony's not afraid of the comedy that pervades the play, either."
"That comedy is there, in the writing," Simotes added. "There's a build to this play that lets us see the people before we watch the situation build into the tragedy it becomes. We're dealing with the thirty-years war in Poland. It took a lot to make these people who they are."
Dukakis' brother Apollo Dukakis is also in the production play the Chaplain who woos Mother Courage. "I know it sounds a little strange," he said, "a brother making love to his own sister..."
"It's acting, schmacting," Olympia inserts into her brother's response. "You can't get caught up in realities here. We're playing roles."
Playing her other suitor, the cook, is John Douglas Thompson. His take on the play and the people is much like his co-star's. "We both want her for almost the same reasons. The cook sees a lot of what she's about and what she's been through. He understands the ups and downs and he feels her subversive energy. He's attracted to this. I just came to realize that he is probably an atheist and so his take on her is very different from what the chaplain sees."
"They all want to win, to prevail," Olympia adds. "That's what it's all about. I did this play first a long way back. When I told my husband about Tony's offer he said, "Oh, my God, again? Can't you leave it alone?" But I can't. I'm twenty years older now, and I can see things differently in her. Mother Courage has a vulnerability that I always refused to play before now, but this time...and of course there's a resonance of the past here...this time it's different. Part of that comes from Tony, too."
"We always seem to be in some sort of religious war on this planet," Simotes adds. Olympia Dukakis finishes his thought for him: "Some psychic recently said that those religious wars would finally end around 2040, but I don't know. What I do know is that this play is not about one of those wars; it's about them all."
Costume Designer Arthur Oliver, also a part of the discussion and interview, has created the look of the show in its historic period, but with more flair and color than is usually associated with the play. "There were no detergents back then, so color did fade quicker. These people are devastated by their situations so the color will be there, will show style and class, but will not be overwhelming."
"Usually the show is designed in drab colors, black and brown and greens maybe," Simotes said. "We want to use color to show the past and the view of a future."
Olympia Dukakis flashes a smile as she shows the model for one of her costumes, a military jacket that is held together by threads and cords. "This is wonderful, right? You can see her past and her present here."
"Except it won't be white muslin, it will have color and reality," Oliver offers.
"This woman bargains for life," Dukakis adds. "She has money and she has to be sure people know she has power but not how she has it or where she keeps things hidden. She just has to keep going forward with her life. As she does so, things change, but they also stay the same."
One of her previous productions saw Olympia Dukakis in her own version, her own adaptation of the play. This company will be using the more traditional Eric Bentley translation which adds one more element of "resonance' for the actress.
"It's a throwback to my beginnings with this part. This is probably the last time I'll play this role. And thank God for Tony. He was my student way back in the day at NYU and now he's hiring me to play these parts. That's what a life in the theater is all about, I guess. You build something for the future."
"Mother Courage and Her Children" runs through August 25 at the Tina Packer Stage at Shakespeare and Company, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA. For information and tickets, call 413-637-3353 or visit www.Shakespeare.org