Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Dismal Dystopia of Brecht's Mother Courage

Mother Courage and Her Children

By Bertolt Brecht

Translated by Tony Kushner
Directed by Emilie Whelan

Ubuntu Theater Project    

February 8–March 3, 2018 (Th-Su)
Mills College, Oakland, CA

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Mother Courage and Her Children is not an easy play to watch, but it is essential to do so, just as Bertolt Brecht intended.

Ubuntu Theater Project has taken up the challenge to stage Brecht’s hard-edged dystopian saga of an intrepid merchant-mother who has learned to repress maternal warmth and self-sacrifice in order to get herself, her wagon, and her children through the absurd, ceaseless, and devastating Thirty Years War in mid-1600s Europe.

Director Emilie Whelan uses Tony Kushner’s translation from the original German to bring an eerie, familiar resonance to this story of a survival that's as futile as the effort of ants scurrying to rebuild a nest that will again and again be destroyed by unseen forces beyond their control.

The play begins with a jaded lieutenant (Dominick Palamenti) extolling war because it brings “order,” while the recruiting soldier (J Jha) whines about the near impossibility of finding men who will willingly fight. The war doesn’t make sense to the soldiers who are nothing but passive pawns in an existential chess game.

Soon, a ramshackle wagon laden with miscellaneous objects rolls onto the scene. It’s run by Mother Courage, a shrewd, finagling, savvy hustler who makes her living selling items to soldiers and who knows how to talk her way out of any situation. She has learned to work the war to her advantage (“A little more war, a little more money...”), for war brings profit which means survival for her and her mute daughter Kattrin and sons Eilif and Swiss Cheese.

It overwhelms all opposition
It needs to grow or else it dies
What else is war but competition
A profit-building exercise?
War isn’t nice, you hope to shirk it
You hope you’ll find someplace to hide
But if you’ve courage You can work it
And set a tidy sum aside

Wilma Bonet as Mother Courage Photo: Simone Finney

Wilma Bonet brings us a tough and strategic Mother, a little pit bull of a woman with a sharp mouth, quick reflexes, and a nose for bargaining. Bonet keeps pace with her character’s constant strategic recalibrations which involve  switching allegiances if it serves her, and using her wits and wares to get by. Her persistence and resilience keeps her in the game until stretched to the absolute limit by the harsh realities and chaos of the war. When she “haggles too long” to sell her wagon to the army to save the life of her son Swiss Cheese (played with complex innocence by Kevin Rebultan), he is killed. When she is asked to identify his body, she cannot bring herself to do so because it would mean losing the wagon.  This is one of the most heartrending scenes of the play, and Bonet’s face carries all of the internal turmoil of a mother who has must hide her feelings to save her livelihood.

On and on the wagon trundles, through the years, battles and betrayals of war, through cruelty and happenstance, through impossible circumstances.  Mother Courage keeps moving, encountering characters like the chaplain, cook, and prostitute, each seeking some straw to grasp in the chaos. Shane Fahy plays the clueless, supercilious chaplain who is useless without someone to preach to, and who tries to pair up with Mother Courage. John Mercer brings a suave seediness to the opportunistic cook who respects Mother Courage’s methods. Kimberly Daniels is a saucy and tough Yvette, the prostitute who is a kindred survivor to Mother Courage.

Shane Fahy as the Chaplain with John Mercer as the Cook Photo: Simone Finney

If she did not keep moving, Mother Courage would become like the miserable peasants, stupidly obedient to rules of state and church, buffeted by the war, starving and dying.  “We’ll all be torn to pieces if we allow the war to take us in too deeply,” she says before realizing how deep she has gone already.

The unseen, larger forces at work whittle away her wagon, chances, and humanity. She has no time to heed the suffering of others. When some peasants are wounded in the war, she refuses their request for cloth to stay the bleeding, for it would mean shrinking her inventory of shirts. It is the mute daughter Kattin who takes action, rescuing and comforting a baby and beating a drum to warn the peasants of the approaching army.  She can only emit sounds from the deep viscera, the kind of sounds animals make when they are in pain or afraid. Yet in her muteness she is the most articulate and compassionate of all of the characters.  Rolanda D. Bell is a powerful Kattrin, a silent but significant presence until the end. When Kattrin is killed by soldiers, Mother Courage, having now lost all of her children, sings a lullaby as she holds her daughter. But Kattrin did not listen to her mother’s advice that  “the ones that no one pays attention to manage to live,” and life must go on.

Rolanda D. Bell as Kattrin Photo: Simone Finney

Mother Courage realizes that to survive, she must capitulate. Tethered to her diminished wagon like a donkey at the mill wheel, she struggles to continue.

Brecht intended his plays to be rowdy, of and for the people, and this production nails it.  With the wagon in the middle of the floor and audience, the songs are as loud and catchy as beer hall tunes until you sense the darkness of the lyrics, as with the “Song of the Hours” about  Christ’s suffering chanted to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” A delightful and very fitting addition is the accordion, spritely played by Diana Strong, and backed up by stark percussion and a bass guitar providing a kind of heartbeat to the action. The final lamentation is:

The world will end and time will cease
And while we live we buy and sell
And in our graves we shall find peace
Unless the war goes on in Hell

For those not familiar with Mother Courage and Her Children, this three-plus hour production may be very trying and tiring, and indeed some people did leave at intermission. The interstitial explanations from the text are displayed on front and back screens but were not that readable, which may have added to confusion. There were times when the wagon obstructed the players from view which added to confusion.

Nevertheless, Ubuntu Theater Project has again put their hearts and souls into manifesting their vision of the play. I left feeling sad, agitated, and a bit despairing, wanting to take action to increase awareness of our own society’s invisible forces of control.

Mother Courage  -  Wilma Bonet*
Eiliff  -  Kenny Scott
Swiss Cheese -  Kevin Rebultan
Kattrin  -  Rolanda D. Bell
The Chaplain - Shane Fahy
The Cook - John Mercer
Yvette - Kimba Daniels
Ensemble -   J Jha, Regina Morones, Dominick Palamenti

*Member of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers

Director - Emilie Whelan
Lighting Designer - Stephanie Anne Johnson
Composer and Sound Designer - Eric Schultz
Assistant Sound Designer - Danny Cantrell
Costume Designer - A. Rene Walker
Assistant Costume Designer - Clay David
Set Designer/Props - Nick Benacerraf
Projection Designer - Adam Larsen
Stage Manager and Handmade Props - Ann K. Barnett
Assistant Stage Manager - L. A. Bonet
Dramaturgical Consultant - Jessi Piggott

February 8–March 3, 2018

by Bertolt Brecht
translated by Tony Kushner
directed by Emilie Whelan

FEB 8 - MAR 3           
Thursdays, 2/14, 21 & 28: 8pm
Fri & Sat Evenings: 8pm
Sundays, 2/10 & 2/17: 7pm
Sundays, 2/24 & 3/3: 2pm

Tickets: $15-45 online, pay-what-you-can at door

Free for Mills students, staff, and faculty with valid Mills ID. Contact box office@ubuntutheaterproject.com for more information.

Lisser Hall - Mills College
Kapiolani Road
Oakland, CA 94613

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