Certain performances define—and burden—their plays: Marlon Brando’s swagger haunts A Streetcar Named Desire; Billie Whitelaw’s cadences echo in Beckett’s one-acts. Similarly, Helene Weigel has defined the title character of Mother Courage for generations. Anyone staging the travails of this sutler from the Thirty Years’ War wrestles with the legacy of Weigel’s “silent scream”—when Mother Courage learns that her son, Swiss Cheese, has been shot, she stifles her sorrow to avoid jeopardizing her own life. Ironically, the Classical Theater of Harlem, stumbling elsewhere in the production, leaps over this particular hurdle with subtlety and grace; Gwendolyn Mulamba, as Mother Courage, simply moves her hand to her gut while her torso ever so gently collapses. It works.
The play’s best moments, lamentably sporadic, are those that are quiet and spare, and the company, especially Michael Early as the Chaplain, does manage to breathe spirit into Eric Bentley’s often wooden translation. But director Christopher McElroen tends to confuse movement with energy, resulting in a fidgety production that doesn’t trust the inherent interest of the material. When Courage explains her children’s parenthood, she tugs pointlessly on a soldier’s pants—just to set up his line, “Are you pulling my leg?” Video and audio clips referring to American aggression in Iraq, Panama, and elsewhere, along with plot summaries read over TV monitors by a Fox anchor, bludgeon the audience with the play’s contemporary relevance. Paul Dessau’s music has been jettisoned—not necessarily a crime, but the cheesy synthesizer orchestrations underwhelm. (“The Solomon Song,” for example, becomes a piece of ’70s funk for no thematic reason.)