Arts Listings

The Theater: ‘Mother Courage’ at Berkeley Rep

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday September 29, 2006

On the wall was chalked:/They Want War./The man who wrote it/Has already fallen. 


Bertolt Brecht’s terse poem itself is scrawled in chalk on four doors painted black that stand on the Roda Stage as a visual prelude to Berkeley Rep’s production of Mother Courage, before the cast carries them off and begins the show. 

The dates and changing locations, and song titles, of the dozen scenes of the play are also inscribed, one after the other, and sometimes overlapping, like graffiti on the stage’s back wall, as Mother Courage and her children and hangers-on pull her cart across from Sweden across Poland and through Germany, following the armies which buy the good Mother’s wares and services. 

Brecht adapted Mother Courage from a 17th-century novel by Grimmelshaven about a petty war profiteer plying her goods amid the hellish cycles of battle and looting that engulfed Central and Northern Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. It was the leftist German playwright’s response to the 1939 invasion of Poland, a warning to Scandinavia, where he was living in exile, not to get embroiled. 

“To sup with the devil, you need a longhandled spoon,” as The Chaplain says to The Cook (the Mother’s rival hangers-on) and to Mother Courage herself, halfway through the play. 

Mother Courage and Her Children was the full title of the play, and the opening scene introduces the Courage brood: her two sons, Eilif the strong--and rapacious (Justin Leath), honest Swiss Cheese (Drew Hirshfield), and mute, compassionate daughter Kattrin (Katie Huard), already a traumatized victim and the only one in the family who hopes for peace. Each is from a different father. 

They’re introduced, and almost immediately begin to disappear. Playing a fortune-telling game to get a sergeant (Brent Hinkley)to pony up for more booze, Mother Courage (Ivonne Coll) has him draw a lot from his helmet; it has a black cross, signifying death. But her children all draw, too, and each lot is marked. Meanwhile, a recruiter (Marc Damon Johnson) has talked up Eilif, who runs off seeking martial glory and the spoils of war.  

There’s also a wayward hooker, Yvette (Katie Barrett), whose liaisons with doddering old officers move her up the social scale, as changes in costume (David Zinn’s designs), from bright plumage (the hat and blue high-heeled boots Kattrin craves) to embroidered heavy mourning as officer’s widow clearly indicate. 

The cast is quick and game—too quick, it seems. The production plan defuses their focus both as characters and ensemble by substituting vaudeville for Epic Theater, epic in the sense of telling a social tale, demonstrating the relations between characters under the unusual conditions depicted, bringing it to the audience as evidence to a jury that will be engrossed in deliberation. 

Brecht intended a show centered on scene after scene that demonstrated what he called “the social gest, which alone introduces the human element.” Mother Courage biting the sergeant’s coin, or haggling a bit too much in trying to save one son’s life at bargain rates are examples of the social gest. But in this production, these are glossed over, as the cast races about, tossing off the lines from British political playwright David Hare’s remarkable translation like a series of burlesque routines. 

The songs (Gina Leishman’s music, which would be fine in another context) are a particular case in point. Perhaps the best moment of the show is Jarion Monroe’s delivery of “The Solomon Song.” Brecht’s lyrics were originally featured in his Threepenny Opera, with Kurt Weill’s caressing, disturbing melody. It became Lotte Lenya’s (Weill’s wife and the originator of several early Brechtian roles) touchstone number in cabaret. When Brecht recycled it for a different use in a play with music, the music had a different effect. 

Monroe as the cynical Cook serves it straight to the audience, and very well: “Wisdom, Courage, Honesty ... what else turns out to be not of much use? Ah, yes: Charity! ... You’re better off without!” But the tune is an oom-pah number now, accenting the barroom and carnivalesque senses that alternate and whirl away the choice, concentrated images, the “pregnant moments” of the songs and scenes. 

Ivonne Coll cuts a fine figure as Mother Courage; Monroe and Patrick Kerr are the right choices to play her self-absorbed “admirers;” Huard as Kattrin is admirable throughout. It’s the confusion between “putting on a show” in Brecht’s sense and the sketchy, song-and-dance divertisements of director Lisa Peterson’s conception that squanders this theatrical opportunity.  




Through Oct. 22 at the Roda Theater, 2025 Addision St., 647-2949.