"M. Courage," the Cowardly Slog

There is an excellently produced anti-war narrative set in a digital playground released this year. It features a charismatic but ultimately unlikable protagonist surrounded by the engine of the military industrial complex and asks its audience to question the lure of the battlefield by showing its grisly underbelly while still being an entertaining and complex work by a known creative genius brought to life by able actors who are experts in their craft.

That narrative is of course, “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” a deeply flawed but well-made video game released in September. It is not, unfortunately, the production of Bertolt Brecht’s picaresque “Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder” (“Mother Courage and her Children”) that the SMC Theater Arts department is currently running on the Main Stage.

Adapted as “M. Courage,” director Terrin Adair updates Brecht’s 1939 work – often called the greatest play of the 20th century – for modern audiences by changing its setting from the "30 Years War" in central Europe to the virtual world of a “post-modern” online video game. The alteration allows for some truly fantastic costuming by Kristie Mattsson, inventive makeup by Alejandro Bermudez and a generally strong effort put forth by the rest of the technical staff working on the show. However the “war as a video game” pretense is undercut by the nature of the play’s plot and it defeats the entire production with unnecessarily added fridge logic that ruins the themes of Brecht’s magnum opus.

“Mother Courage and her Children” is, unlike most war stories, fundamentally about the nature of the supply line and the stark reality that a marching army runs on its stomach. Mother Courage is a woman who survives by selling supplies to soldiers, traveling behind the front with her wagon full of goods and her misbegotten trio of children. Stuck in a war that’s lasted an entire generation, she’s exposed to horror after horror and is undone by her own will to survive through morally bankrupt profiteering.

But if this is all a video game, absolutely none of that makes sense. Video game avatars don’t actually get hungry or starve, they don’t need to drink to soothe jangled nerves and if they’re killed they just respawn and try again. It’s inane to watch this production when you keep in mind the rules of the revision; if you’ve ever actually played an online game you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that Mother Courage herself is likely a 40-year-old man at a keyboard in Des Moines and this “game” is actually set in the world’s most annoying role-playing server, a thought that deflates drama by definition.

It’s a conceit that simply doesn’t work. It takes a play that understands the absurdities of wartime as tragic and devouring of the human soul and turns it into a total farce. But stuck with Brecht’s masterfully sharp dialogue on human nature that's meant to be serious, a farcical tone just doesn’t fit.

Still, there have been worse thought out adaptations in the world of theater. And the heart of any theatrical production lies in the ability of its cast; able performances can make even critically bad ideas tolerable.

This is not such a cast.

As the central character, the brunt of the criticism falls upon Ioanna Kostopoulou as Mother Courage. It’s a role meant for an older woman who can draw upon years of experience to express a deep forlorn look at the world she finds herself in, but the youthful Kostopoulou has neither the years, nor the pure strength of will to pull the role off. This is topped off with an inability to project vocally, and it falls to inconsistent microphone work to even hear her half of the time.

The rest of the leads fare about the same. Ashlyn Smith’s mute Kattrin has terrible pantomime and Akua Parker’s portrayal of the prostitute, Yvette Pottier, is the height of cliché. The absolute worst performance belongs to Jesse Sandoval as the Cook – if it were revealed that he had received the script a day before opening night, his flat stammering of barely remembered lines would still be inexcusable.

There are bright spots. Chris Sanders' turn as the Chaplain lets him show ability at deft sarcasm, but it’s the pair of narrators that truly shine. Covered in Kabuki makeup, both Ke Wei and Anna Kaskeeva throw themselves into their roles as guides and muses, bequeathing a spritely energy to a show in desperate need of it.

What’s strange is that the supporting cast shares this energy that most of the leads lack. There are a number of minor characters with only a handful of lines and the actors in these roles make the best of the scant time they have to leave an impression. Particular praise must be declared for Brandon Burrell, Thomas Bayne and especially Michael Mejia who applies exactly the right tone to his three lines – overplaying a mocking belief in this farce with exactly the correct intonation.

This bizarre reverse hierarchy of acting quality – where the supporting cast pulls off what the leads can’t – creates the impression that the predominant problem with the production lies in direction. The supporting cast must not have been given much guidance, and, left to their own devices, they decided to make the best out of their small roles while the main cast seemed confused as to what they were trying to accomplish. It’s an impression further bolstered by the laughable interludes of stage combat, where the ensemble’s low energy and obvious fear of endangering themselves is ever present.

The cardinal rule of acting is that actors have to show commitment. They have to commit to the reality of their character and the play’s setting and they have to commit to giving their all in a physical sense – projecting their voices and showing passion with their movement and space work. It takes actual courage to get out on stage and that courage should drive an actor’s commitment to their work.

For the most part, this necessary commitment is scattershot throughout “M. Courage” and severely lacking in those that need it most. Whether this is the fault of the actors, due to directorial confusion, or the baffling choices in adaptation is ultimately irrelevant. When commitment isn’t seen by the audience, all they end up seeing is cowardice.

If that’s what you’re into, “M. Courage” is continuing its run this weekend on Dec. 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. with matinees at 2 p.m. on both days. Perhaps by then, the cast will remember to read the second word of the play’s title and apply it to their craft.