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Seana McKenna (centre) as Mother Courage with E.B. Smith (left) as Eilif, Carmen Grant as Kattrin and Antoine Yared as Swiss Cheese in Mother Courage and Her Children.

David Hou

Mother Courage and Her Children

Written by Bertolt Brecht

and Margarete Steffin

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Translated by David Edgar

Directed by Martha Henry

Starring Seana McKenna

*** Three stars

Alice Through the Looking-Glass

Written by Lewis Carroll

Adapted by James Reaney

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Directed by Jillian Keiley

Starring Trish Lindstrom

** Two stars

Both at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont.

Certainly, Mother Courage and Her Children has plenty going for it in its new production at the Stratford Festival. It has an ideal leading lady in Seana McKenna, playing theatre's most famous single-mom anti-heroine – a woman who survives the Thirty Years War selling wares to soldiers from her cart, but loses her children along the way.

And it has finely hewn supporting performances from Geraint Wyn Davies as a cock-of-the-walk Cook; Ben Carlson as a snivelling yet sympathetic Chaplain; and particularly from Deidre Gillard-Rowlings as a tart, named Yvette, stealing scenes and bringing home the play's message about the unholy alliance of war and moneyin the most unvarnished way.

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What is absent from this well acted Mother Courage, however, is an animating spiritor inspired vision for a work more admired as a masterpiece on the page than appreciated as such in performance. Martha Henry's production of Bertolt Brecht and Margarete Steffin's play, written as Germany invaded Poland in 1939, may employ a swear-words-laden new translation by British playwright David Edgar, but it lacks urgency and is directed in a dainty, old-fashioned waythat makes it look like a revival from the 1960s.

You get the impression this Courage was mounted primarily because the title role was thought a good one for Stratford star McKenna, which it undoubtedly is, rather than out of any passion for the play. From one point of view, that makes this version quite refreshing: Here is a Mother Courage that does not overemphasize its messageand, rather than overthinking Brecht's theories about epic theatre or his so-called "alienation effect," just lets the play unspool at a cool distance. Director Peter Hinton's wild 2010 piano-filled production at the National Arts Centre and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre comes to mind as one of the more overthought in recent memory (and, like most of Hinton's most epic wipeouts, actually comes to mind quite fondly from a distance).

Henry and her designer, John Pennoyer, are satisfied with a bare-bones production – Courage's well-worn cart, a distractingly unpluckable fake chicken, a kazoo or two, and actor Randy Hughson appearing at regular intervals to ironically introduce scenes.

The blandness provides an opportunity to observe how Brecht, the supposed theatrical innovator, was more of a rediscoverer – using history for his purposes not all that differently from how Shakespeare did in, say, Henry V with his metatheatrical chorus providing context and commentary on the action.

Edgar, best known for an eight-hour adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby that roamed the world in the 1980s, has provided a translation that is clear and lucid, but that is filled with profanity obviously written by a Brit who hasn't worked much with Canadian actors. Canucks are rarely capable of cursing with conviction – though the scene with the most F-bombs here is actually the best in the play for McKenna, as her Courage calms an angry soldier (and herself), after the death of her son, with her song, The Great Capitulation. Never has giving in seemed so reasonable and heartbreaking.

The death of Mother Courage's children isn't a spoiler, by the way – that would imply that you're supposed to be surprised by what happens. The play isn't about the outcomes of war, but the relentlessness of it – and Courage's never-ending journey. Certainly, you can see why the play has stuck around, but solid as this Stratford production is, it evaporated from my mind almost the moment I left the theatre.

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A very busy Alice

If Mother Courage lacks directorial vision, Alice Through the Looking-Glass overfloweth with it. Jillian Keiley, current artistic director of the National Arts Centre's English Theatre, and her designer, Bretta Gerecke, have come up with many inspired (and sometimes conflicting) ways to conjure the fantasy world of Lewis Carroll's 1871 novel.

Chief among these is to have Alice (Trish Lindstrom) followed through the reverse universe by a chorus line of Alices, in opposite-print dresses, who are invisible to her. They are like a troupe of oversized child performers, putting on a school-play version of Alice Through the Looking-Glass for Alice. With lots of bicycles, and translucent balls that actors can roll around inside of, plus whimsical underscoring by Jonathan Monro, there are all the right ingredients here for a rollicking romp.

Unfortunately, what is actually served up onstage feels as if it could use another month or two in the oven. There are a couple of things working against it, I suspect. For one, playwright James Reaney's prissy adaptation, which made its debut in 1994, feels as if it dates back to the 1950s. It mainly focuses on the games that Carroll plays with language – but much of the wordplay that is so much fun to read, and reread, is lost coming out of actors' mouths, at least the one here. It is hard for even an adult's ears to follow it, especially with accents from the British Isles that seem very put-on in this production. (Why couldn't fantasy creatures speak in Canadian accents, for heaven's sakes?)

The other problem is, I suspect, the inherent difficulty of crafting a production full of character-based choreography and physical-theatre elements in Stratford's unwieldy repertory system. There is a lot of shouting and posing– as if the actors were trying to be wild and crazy, rather than truly letting loose.

After an exhausting first half, Alice does finds a certain rhythm. Lindstrom's performance is absolutely charming, an affectionate burlesque of the physical awkwardness and underdeveloped attention spans of children. Brian Tree gets the words and tone right, avoiding recitation or condescension, as an arrogant Humpty Dumpty– and his eventual fall from the wall is appropriately disgusting. Other excellent work comes from newcomers to Stratford: Rylan Wilkie, who has a fair bit of experience doing clown-based work with Toronto's Theatre Columbus, knows how to be ridiculous and loveable as the White Knight, while Elliott Loran brings an off-the-wall energy to a brief but memorably dark cameo as a Gnat(and a demonic energy to many of his background characters).

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Most of the rest are a letdown. In the end, it's hard not to compare Keiley's very movement-based take on a language-based adaptation unfavourably with the National Ballet of Canada's recent dance version of Alice– perhaps the best adaptation of Carroll to ever make it to a stage. This one does, however, feature a scene where jellybeans are thrown into the audience. They were a delicious bribe but I'd still be more inclined take a kid to see A Midsummer Night's Dream on the Festival Stage – in which many of the best performers actually are kids, and which seems to fully respect them as spectators.

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