Theater archives

Bourgeois Nights


Verfremdungseffekt. No, it’s not a gastrointestinal disease, but the word with which we will
forever associate Bertolt Brecht. Brecht considered his famed and frequently misinterpreted
experiments with the Verfremdungseffekt, which translates as “alienation effect,” something of a failure. His plays were popular, as I believe he wished them to be, but Brecht also wanted his audiences to receive his work in a very particular, unemotional, and analytical manner, not credulously follow it like a melodrama. Silly Bertolt, you can’t control how audiences think. (It’s also hard to swallow the idea that any sane dramatist would want everybody in the house to think like a reviewer.) Most modern directors say they’re using Verfremdungseffekt whenever they add some kooky staging device or buzzer under the seats to remind us we’re in a theater and not actually experiencing the events onstage. But that’s not the way my mama made it when she baked Brecht at home. As the spaghetti-sauce ad used to say, “It’s in there.”

Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, as staged by Ma-Yi, a 10-year-old Filipino
theater company, presents a perfect opportunity
to see some unintentional Verfremdungseffekt
in action. The ensemble has transposed the episodic tale of a hapless woman who runs a concession stand during the Thirty Years War to the Philippine villages of the Maguindano
region during the 1970s rebel campaigns against dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Rodolfo Carlos Vera’s adaptation, from a translation by Ralph Mannheim and John Willett, is a little superficial, consisting mostly of rewriting Brecht’s scene-setting narrations and tossing around some Tagalog. Written in 1941, the play supports this kind of renovation quite well, since its original setting
is a told-you-so directed at mid­WW II Europe, designed to comment on war’s universal amorality, among other things.

Here’s how its Verfremdungseffekt works. In Mother Courage, Brecht created a powerful symbol for mankind’s ambivalence toward struggles against hegemony in the image of a capitalist whose small business profits from the misfortune around her. Mother Courage was given her ironic moniker because she drove her cart through the bombardment of Riga (in the original version) in order to save her business. Not, notably, herself or her children. Whenever presented with the choice between her money and her life, she unfailingly chooses her money. She carries this philosophy into parenting, losing each of her children through a botched financial arrangement. She is victim, opportunist, and brownnoser all at once, a cutting critique of the moral Cerberus of bourgeois values. Her actions often run contrary to human nature (what real mother would negotiate the price on her son’s head?) so that as we stand in judgment of her, we engage in a philosophical debate about her circumstances rather than becoming involved in a simulacrum of her emotional journey. Personally, I kind of hate her. Voilà! Verfremdungseffekt!

Ma-Yi, unfortunately, adds unwanted Verfremdungseffekt in the form of Ching Valdez-Aran, whose performance as Mother Courage is as alienating as the character herself. Plagued by the Connelly Theatre’s problematic acoustics, Valdez-Aran compensates by shouting herself hoarse through most of the play, even over Fabian Obispo’s Southeast Asian pop­influenced settings of the songs, which zigzag nicely between beauty and tackiness. Valdez-Aran’s Mother Courage­as-megaphone might even be tolerable if she could still convey the subtleties of the text and control the register of her voice. When she displays some control in one of the tender scenes of the second half, you might wonder where this new actress came from. The ensemble is very charming, tiptoeing as they do along the edge of cabaret schmaltz. In particular, Tess Lina as Ynez (née Yvette) conquers the acoustics and vamps with verve, even though Suzi Takahashi’s surrogate singing upstages her, and Rich Ceraulo as Kesong Puti (a/k/a Swiss Cheese) couldn’t possibly be more charismatic or cute. Director Tazewell Thompson’s initially weak staging snaps together after a while, but by that time the über-Verfremdungseffekt of his Weltanschauung turns to Weltschmerz, and the angst is like Götterdämmerung. You might as well go home and read a bildungsroman.