‘Mother Courage’: A dose of the Brecht reality

Theatre Vertigo delivers an intimate, intense production of Tony Kushner's translation

Robert Wyllie, Paige Jones & Matthew Kerrigan in “Mother Courage.”/Theatre Vertigo

By EMILY STEVENS

Hey, have you guys see anything good on TV lately? Yeah, me neither. I did, however, see something pretty good on Saturday night. Theatre Vertigo’s ambitious mounting of Bertolt Brecht’s anti-war play Mother Courage.

If you’re not familiar with it, the play follows scrappy peddler Anna Fierling, a mother nicknamed ‘Courage’ because she was brave enough (or desperate enough) to drag her cart of wares right up to the front lines of battle during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). The play is a perfect example of Brecht’s “instructional theater”: We learn about Marx’s concept of alienation—the notion that capitalism separates us from our humanity—through Courage’s tragedy, specifically that her children end up fueling the fruitless war because of her preoccupation with money. Or as Brecht put it more simply, “Mother Courage haggles while her children die.”

We meet Courage’s children in the first scene: Eilif (the smart one), Swiss Cheese (the honest one), and Kattrin (the dumb one), and also learn that they will all be dead before the war is through. When recruiters come for her sons, Courage fights them off with a knife, but is instantly distracted when one of the soldiers wants to see her wares and Eilif is easily plucked away.

Eilif is destroyed by his bravery, hailed as a hero for slitting the throats of rival farmers and their cattle during the war and incarcerated for the very same act in the play’s brief scene of peace. Of course Mother Courage is not there to see him off to his firing squad or to bury him, because she is at the market trying to sell her goods while the prices of war are still high. Her haggling also keeps her from saving Swiss Cheese, who takes his soldier’s duty so closely to heart that he ends up ensnared by the rival army. His contribution to the war effort is not recognized, and Courage is forced to disown him, lest the enemy soldiers take her . Kattrine gives every ounce of herself to the war—her voice, her beauty, her life—and in the end it truly does not matter, her one act of defiance only perpetuates the cycle.

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All the while Mother Courage moves on, dragging her wagon through Europe, a heavy symbol of the futility of war and the vicious loop of capitalism. Here she is:

“I’m not courageous, only the poor have courage, why? Because they’re hopeless. Just to get up every morning, to plow a potato field in war time or to bring kids with no prospects into to the world. Yeah, to live poor, that takes courage. No, they trudge along uncomplainingly, carrying the emperor in his heavy throne and the pope in his stone cathedral. They stagger, starving, bearing the whole thundering weight of the…wealthy on their broad stupid backs. Is that courage? It must be, but it’s perverted courage. Why? ‘Cause what they carry on their backs will cost them their lives.”

Brecht wrote Mother Courage as a nomad himself, starting as an expat in Sweden in 1939 and moving across Europe as country after country fell to the Third Reich. When the play was finally staged in 1941 by Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, Germany was ravaged by World War II and  sitting on the brink of the Cold War, and its own terrors. Brecht had to be intentionally enigmatic, rather than overly Romantic, but then he believed in the audience maintaining a certain distance from the tragedy (how else would they learn?). Tony Kushner’s translation, originally produced in 2006 by the Public Theater, is long winded, but full of dark wit.

“We had gumption…they bought it”

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Paige Jones and Brooke Fletcher as Mother Courage and Kattrin./Theatre Vertigo

The weight of this play could easily swallow Vertigo’s ensemble, but so many aspects of the production were spot on. Paige Jones, is sharp and unyielding as Mother Courage, and her brood—consisting of Brooke Fletcher, Mario Calcagno and R. David Wyllie—is equally impressive. Original music by Portland local Joseph Appel gave clear nods to Brecht’s contemporaries, though there were some minor balance issues, and director John Steinkamp’s use of space is excellent. Courage’s cart could have easily dwarfed the tiny arena stage or halt the narrative, but each transition was smooth and the pace was engaging.

This is just one of many powerful works happening in Portland right now, and its all too easy to see our own vain wars (see also: conflicts, insurgencies, class struggles, occupations,  debates) reflected in them. In the documentary “Theater of War,”  Meryl Streep described her relationship to Courage, when she played the role in 2006: “I think of her as you and me. You know, we all live off the war, whether we acknowledge it, she’s just more dirty and in the trenches. We all live off the war.”

”Our king will never be defeated. Why? Because his people believe in him. Why? Because precisely they know, he’s in the war to make a profit. If he weren’t, the little people like me would smell disaster in his war and they’d steer away from him. But if it’s business, it makes sense.”

Mother Courage runs October 19 – November 17, 2012; Thursday – Saturday Eves @ 7:30 p.m. Special Monday Performance November 5 @ 7:30. Tickets, $15 available at www.theatrevertigo.org.

 

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