The Michigan State University Theatre production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” utilizes the same English translation by Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) as the 2006 Shakespeare in the Park production starring Meryl Streep (yes, that Meryl Streep).
At the time, Ben Brantley of The New York Times likened Streep’s performance to watching “one willowy human being lift a 12-ton play onto her shoulders and hold it there for hours.”
It should come as no surprise to MSU Theatre fans that master’s student Leslie Hull is taking on the monumental title character as her thesis role. Anna Fierling, a.k.a. “Canteen Anna,” makes her living from the war, only to lose all three of her children during the conflict. The role presented new challenges as someone who is admirable for her stoicism but detestable for her extremely misplaced values.
“My first reading of her — I did not like her,” says Hull, noting Anna’s cold persona. “But after I spent more time with her, I could see where she was coming from.”
Hull says she grew to empathize with a person surrounded by constant violence and the strength it takes to keep moving despite the slow loss of her own humanity.
Hull conducted considerable research for the role, including taking a trip to Berlin to see a production of “Mother Courage.” In a twist of fate, the performance was canceled the day Hull arrived, due to an injury sustained by the lead actress from pulling the character’s giant cart. Fortunately, Hull was able to watch another Brecht production and visit Brecht’s home, which she described as “very Spartan.”
Hull’s total immersion into her character is just one thing that the show’s director Mark Colson admires. “I couldnīt have asked for a better actress to play this role,” Colson says. “She does have that strength (and) power. She has a tremendous vulnerability as well.”
Colson says what really makes Hull a professional is her willingness to try new things every rehearsal. “As far as a director is concerned, that’s the most you can ask from your actor: going out there and trying different things and stretching your own boundaries every single time. That’s amazing because it gives you multitude of choices for the two of us.”
In addition to the extra demands that come with directing Brecht — such as interpreting Brecht’s body of theories throughout the play — Colson says this production also has to incorporate multimedia elements. The real challenge is that multimedia in theater can still mean virtually anything.
Colson and Hull agreed that it was important the multimedia element “wasnīt going to take away from our storytelling,” Colson says.
Hull says that while the play is set during the Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s, the commentary is much broader.
“There is always something going on like this somewhere, and not just military conflict. It’s about thinking of war in a broader sense,” she says.
Despite deliberately anachronistic costumes that aim to distort the sense of period to frequent out-of-character asides designed to throw the audience off balance, Hull and Colson argue that this show is accessible to everyone.
“Iīm not interested in doing some dusty old piece for a bunch of Brecht scholars,” Colson says. “Weīre doing this piece for a modern, contemporary audience.”
As Hull’s final performance at MSU, “Mother Courage” will be a bittersweet farewell. “I’ve enjoyed my time here so much,” Hull says. “I’ve had so many wonderful experiences onstage and off. It’s a beautiful show to honor that.”