Berkeley Repertory Theatre
They call her "Courage" but her name might as well be "Mother Avarice." The protagonist of Bertolt Brecht's great anti-war play, newly revived at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, follows the armies of the Thirty Years' War over the increasingly desolate landscape of Germany and Poland, selling her wares from a wagon to whichever side has coin to pay. You can get a hot lunch, a shot of brandy, dry socks and underwear and, hey, how about her dead daughter's shoes? Waste not, want not. After all, survival is the name of the game for soldiers and civilians alike.
"Mother Courage" is the ultimate portrait of a war profiteer (although nobody in this play ever gets rich). The wagon, which is center stage for most of the 12 scenes, becomes a character in itself. Sometimes covered, sometimes not -- sometimes laden with goods, sometimes bare and empty -- the shabby vehicle, which is pulled by Courage, her various children and whoever else happens into her life, reflects the fortunes of war, as well as peacetime (the latter generally considered to be bad for business).
The playwright's leftist leanings, proclivities that led him before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, during a brief sojourn in this country as an escapee from Nazi Germany, were well known. He was an outspoken pacifist, something of a Marxist and a staunch defender of the little guy. Too bad he didn't settle in Berkeley instead of Hollywood when he emigrated. He would have felt more at home. The play, on the other hand, with its eerie similarities to the current conflict in Iraq, was right at home in this liberal venue. It was written, oddly enough, in Scandinavia, as a cautionary tale in 1939 after Hitler's invasion of Poland. Brecht meant it as a warning to Sweden and Finland not to be drawn into WWII.
There is much to admire in the Berkeley Rep production of this most difficult play, from Ivonne Coll's masterful portrayal of the title character to Gina Leishman's score, a mixture of long-time Brecht collaborator Kurt Weill, jazz and French chanson, with a little bossa nova thrown in for good measure. Patrick Kerr (the obnoxious Noel of "Frasier" fame) and Katie Barrett add comedy as an army chaplain-in-hiding and a camp follower who strikes it rich, respectively. Courage's children (all illegitimate and all with different fathers) are well-played, especially Katie Huard's mute daughter, Kattrin, who emerges as the sole selfless character of the lot. The other two are Justin Leath as the son who marches off to glory, only to meet an inglorious downfall, and Drew Hirshfield as Swiss Cheese, so named because he may as well have holes in his dense brain. Jarion Monroe also is a strong presence as a philandering army cook who takes up with Courage near the end.
Practically everybody, including the three excellent musicians, doubles and triples in the ensemble of soldiers, farmers and general riff raff met by Courage as she trudges down her weary road. The play is performed in playwright David Hare's translation and the massive forces pulled together by director Lisa Peterson.
Here's a thought for the day: "Fight smart and business will be fine," says Mother Courage. And another, from the prostitute: "For us at the bottom there's not much difference between victory and defeat." And the siege goes on.