Trish Mulholland does a powerful job in the title role of Bertolt Brecht’s mind-boggling anti-war classic, “Mother Courage,” which opened Saturday at the theater in John Hinkle Park. This mesmerizing production is, wonderfully enough, a free performance: Shotgun Theater’s annual gift to the community. You can bet that some people will go back to see it more than once.
Mulholland is supported by a talented cast. Among numerous excellent performances are the roles of Mother Courage’s three adult children: her two sons, “Eilif,” (Leith Burke) and “Swiss Cheese” (Andy Alabran) and her mute, largely ignored, daughter, Kattrin (Gwen Larsen). Mother Courage’s wagon full of overpriced, miscellaneous wares is pulled from place to place by her sons, following various armies—they’re just customers to her—as they go through the horrors of the 17th century’s Thirty Years War.
That war was consciously chosen as the play’s background. It destroyed much of Europe in a futile struggle over power by Kings and Emperors. Two generations of German soldiers died in a war that ended in a truce that did not name either side as a winner.
All in all, this is a curious play. Brecht wanted to establish a new form of drama in which would differ radically from the traditional Aristotelian tragedy. He may have succeeded. You could even argue that it’s actually a musical tragi-comedy. There are a number of songs, reminiscent of the music in “The Three-Penny Opera.” They’re accompanied by Henri Ducharme’s accordian and a collection of percussion instruments played by Josh Pollack. But, at least in this production, the music seems more decoration and comment than fundamental to the action of the play.
Brecht wrote “Mother Courage” in 1938, presumably as a warning to Sweden and Germany about Hitler’s politics. The play, however, is easily read as being not so much anti-Nazi as it is anti-war. It could be argued that the work is actually a scathing indictment of the role of capitalism as a basis for war. The present national concerns about the purpose and costs of the military actions in the Middle East are uncomfortably relevant.
Brecht had hoped for immediate performances but was forced to flee the continent as the Nazis invaded. There was one wartime production in Switzerland in 1941 without Brecht’s participation. That audience saw Mother Courage as a victim, which prompted Brecht to make a number of subtle but important changes to the script. Mother Courage’s deliberate choice to be involved in, and make a livingfrom, war was clarified.
Director Patrick Dooley has elected to use a 1995 translation by British playwright David Hare (“Skylight” and “The Blue Room”) which emphasizes the play’s sarcastic humor. Dooley says that most English translations don’t tend to be as funny as the original. And it is this humor that adds to the play’s complexity.
It would be easy for the figure of the hardworking mother who suffers such losses to be sentimentalized. Just look at her name. But the act of “courage” referred to was scarcely noble: She ran through gunfire to retrieve the bread that she wanted to sell. She lies and cheats and seems to have no ideas other than those connected to material gain. And there’s certainly nothing soft and fuzzy about her mothering. Her idea of soothing her injured daughter is to assure her that her scars will make her so ugly that nobody will want to rape her.
Petty, materialistic, unscrupulous, insensitive, she is still a mother. Arguably she could be seen as a more of comic than tragic figure. Probably this is one of the few plays which truly deserves the classification “tragi-comedy.”
Several actors play multiple parts. If there is a weakness in this production, (and it seems small-minded to nit-pick such fine work) it is the fact that budget issues required so much multi-tasking. There are times when a few of the actors become identifiable as the person who played another character in a previous scene. That said, it’s pleasing to notice the quality that is maintained among the actors in general.
All told, an excellent production of a terrific play.
“Mother Courage and Her Children” plays at 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 14 in John Hinkle Park. The Sept. 13 show will be held in Live Oak Park. Admision is free.
There will be no performance Aug. 9.