The father of the rock musical, recently popularized with the much regaled Spring Awakening, the flamboyant Rock of Ages and Green Day’s American Idiot, is none other than Bertolt Brecht.
Born in 1898 in Bavaria, Brecht thrilled the world with such inspired, music filled productions as The Three Penny Opera and Schweik in the Second World War. In their masterful revival of Brecht’s The Mother, Oracle Theatre embraces both the heart and the punk rock nature of one of the theatre’s true, counter-culture geniuses.
It is 1905 in Russia and modest Palagea Vlassova is worried about her son, Pavel, and his bookish ways. Her distress grows when she discovers that her factory worker offspring is engaging in revolutionary activities with his co-workers. Angered at the frequent decreases in their already skimpy wages, Pavel and his friends have been inciting their comrades to strike. But when Pavel is arrested in a demonstration, the formerly reticent Palagea grows into one of Russia’s fieriest activists. Learning to read and write, she takes to the countryside to band together the entire nation’s passionate poor.
Granted, Brecht’s subject matter is the rise of the Communist Party, but his focus is on Palagea. Any woman who has fought for better school lunches for her children or improved roads for public safety can, therefore, fully relate to the circumstances here. Brecht’s humor, cunning intelligence and simple yet penetrating lyrics are all on full display, as well.
By utilizing Eleanor Kahn’s inspired rows of tables and the darkened nooks and crannies of the performance space, director Max Truax has created a truly singular, endless creative theatrical experience. With brilliant silent film style projections helping the narrative and Nicholas Tonozzi’s flawless vocal arrangements of Jonathan Guillan’s music, one is literally swept away by these creators’ passion.
The cast pops out from beneath your feet and on carefully placed risers, singing with delightfully layered harmonies. Led by the radiant Katherine Keberlein, who shades Palagea with humility and gritty determination, they truly fuse together with theatrical integrity and force. Rick Foresee brings the proper wearied resignation to his Pavel while Stephanie Plot and Havalah Grace ignite with determined fear as his closest companions. DeChantel Kosmatka’s biting superiority as The Commissioner is a joyous pleasure, as well.
That this production is offered to the public for free due to Oracle’s mission of theatre for all, only sweetens an already over-full pot.
Here, the incredibly talented Keberlein gives us a rare look behind the scenes of this unusual, truly pertinent offering.
Sheridan Road: Hi, Katherine! Your role in The Mother is so physical, vocally, emotionally and movement-wise. Can you let our readers know how you prepare, before each show, to tackle such complexities?
Katherine: I have had the good fortune to perform constantly for the past 13 years in Chicago theatre, which is a workout and preparation in itself. I have two daughters (7 and 4). I log a decent number of miles running each week, and I sing regularly as a church cantor … thank goodness! All of that has helped me prepare for the 101 minute marathon that is this show. Beyond being in decent fighting shape, though, I realized early on that I needed to be physically stronger and more able to control my balance just because of the unique nature of our set – I spend much of the beginning of the show showing the meek, vulnerable side of the mother, but it takes a lot of energy to climb up and down the tables, all while maintaining that frail appearance. So a few more hours in the gym! In terms of emotional preparation: the immersive nature of the production – the fact that we are in place 15 minutes before the play even begins – allows all of us in the cast to live in that world before the first word is spoken, and the majority of us never leave the space for the full run of the show each night.
SR: Amazing! The set-up for the show is so interesting. The cast moves on top and under rows of tables. Do you have any fun stories about the rehearsal process or amusing tales about little mishaps that happened along the way?
Katherine: Bite your tongue … we will have no mishaps with the set!
SR: Ouch! Okay. Done!
Katherine: You are right, though: the design of the tables (Eleanor Kahn, set design) is absolutely ingenious and by far the most unique staging I have ever experienced as an actor. I remember the first day that we had all five tables in place and we began blocking the first song. Max Truax (the director) placed various members of the ensemble around and under the tables, choreographing them to rise and fall as the music surged and receded. The song is emotional to begin with — the desperation of a mother unable to feed her child — but to be literally surrounded by slithering danger, trapped on a pedestal with no way to escape … it was a breathtaking moment. Then the addition of audience members seated at the tables adds to the tension and changes the dynamics every night: it is truly a one-of-a-kind opportunity for an actor.
SR: That truly shows in the performances! With our economy still in a flux and our unemployment rate still hovering, The Mother has obvious parallels to today’s times. How does the piece’s relevance speak to you?
Katherine: In scene three the character Karpov, a union negotiator, urges the workers to accept a pay cut and says “we are on the threshold of the greatest economic crisis our country has ever experienced.” It sounds to me like eerily familiar talk from current US political discourse. But Brecht’s question was: can we in good conscience let that looming crisis, even the possibility of a governmental collapse; erode the rights of the poorest of the poor? If we take communism out of the discussion – out of the play, I think we can agree – I hope we can agree – that we have a duty as human beings to protect the most vulnerable in our society. I find it especially moving to present this play within the context of Oracle’s mission: free art for all. We can educate, we can inspire, and we can lift up our common man.
SR: That truly is an incredible mission. Thank you so much, Katherine!
Katherine: Thank you again for your interest and have a wonderful week!
The Mother runs through May 25th at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway in Chicago. The admission is free and reservations can be secured by visiting publicaccesstheatre.org. – Brian Kirst