Sunday, November 22, 2015

Play: One Tough Mother

Mother Courage and her Children by Bertolt Brecht, Translated by David Hare, Directed by Jeff Steitzer. Seattle Shakespeare Company, through 22 November.

Another one to put in the "Too Late for a Review to Matter" file,which is a pity, since this is worth showing up for.

Spoilers abound, but seriously, this is Mother Courage. If you don't know about it, you really should get thee to a wiki. Written (according to legend) by Brecht in the white-hot heat of Hitler's invasion of Poland and the resulting "Sitzkrieg" when nothing much happened despite war being declared, Brecht was taking on attitudes towards patriotism and war at the very time that his country's leadership was rallying the people for another four years of pain, loss, and agony. Very much speaking truth, or at least irony, to power.

The aforementioned mother (Jeanne Paulsen) is an independent operator in war-torn Europe (the Thirty-Years war, to be exact, in the 1600s). She is a canteen operator following the big armies, selling brandy and lootables to the troops. It is a religious war, but Mother Courage is all about the guilders. The only thing she cares about more than her wagon and her supplies are her children Eilif (Trick Dannecker), Swiss Cheese (Spencer Hamp), and the mute Kattrin (A brilliant Chesa Greene). She tries to benefit from the money sloshing around in the wake of the armies, but wants to protect her children from it. But one by one, she loses them to the very master she serves, leaving her to pull her wagon alone.

The humor is supposed to be black to the point of ultraviolet, and Mother is not supposed to be a sympathetic character. Brecht apparently went back after the debut to make her less vulnerable and likable - he was after what he called epic theater - unlikable protagonists, multiple roles to actors, characters breaking out into song, episodic as opposed to continual flow of action, minimal sets, emotional distance. A lot of which has been picked up over the course of the years by the rest of theater so "epic theater" starts feeling like, well, "theater".

But it is hard not to find sympathy with Mother Courage - all she wants to do is protect her family. The fact that she is endangering them by dragging them into a war zone in the first place is lost on her. And that's the tragedy of the pragmatic Ms. Courage - she thinks she has it all figured out, when in reality she is one more pawn on an ever-growing chessboard.

Jeanne Paulsen is a great strong-willed family mandarin, but even her performance encourages us to root for Courage even as her family is peeled away, opportunities are missed, and blind patriotism presents its butcher's bill. Her voice is strong, but overpowered by the music sometimes (though the entire company is much, much better than the alien landscape of the Mr. Burns play). The audio guys really should be sitting in all the seats to set their levels, and support the actors as opposed to fighting with them. Chesa Greene just disappears into here role as Kattrin. Alyssa Keene as the camp follower Yvette was good and could have gone broader. Similarly Larry Paulsen and R. Hamilton Wright as the two men in Courage's life were great but as well could have gone more comic as well.

And perhaps part of this is what I should be expecting from Brecht. When I hear about political theater, I sorta expect issues to overwhelm subtlety of character, and indeed, the characters have a lot to say about war, even if as characters they either benefit from it or don't show enough sense to get out of the way of it. But I see a lot of humanizing as well, and I think that fights with the original intent.

So, Mother Courage, yes, go see it, in whatever form and upon whichever stage it turns up next. It is not a happy play, but it is epic in every sense of the word.

More later,