The Evil That Men Do

Mother Courage shows raw courage.

As the Bush administration moves America toward a permanent state of war against an undefined and therefore unconquerable enemy -- war that is leaching the country's coffers, grinding up young soldiers, causing suffering overseas and enriching the president's cronies -- it's good to hear the cynical, angry voice of Bertolt Brecht again. Capitalism needs war as war needs capitalism, Brecht tells us. No matter how much rhetoric surrounds it, war is meaningless -- the desire of a ruler for a statue or a patch of ground. And individual goodness can rarely survive a time of war.

Brecht wrote Mother Courage and Her Children, one of his most famous works, in 1939, in an attempt to warn the Scandinavian countries about the inexorable forward motion of Hitler's killing machine. The play, currently showing at Bas Bleu, is set in seventeenth-century Europe during the thirty-year war. Mother Courage is an ambiguous and ironically named figure, a peddler who pulls her cart through war-torn lands, making a living by selling goods to soldiers and the occasional civilian: belt buckles and glasses of brandy, shirts torn into strips for bandages, objects pilfered from the dead. Mother Courage symbolizes capitalism, but she also embodies war itself -- both its stupidity and rapaciousness, and the suffering it causes. She needs war to survive, but it's a miserable, hardscrabble kind of survival. And she pays for it dearly.

Mother Courage has three children, whom she wants to protect. At the beginning of the play, she predicts their deaths -- either through genuine clairvoyance or as a warning to them to stay close. One son, Swiss Cheese, is good-hearted and honest, but not very bright -- characteristics that cause his death. The second son, Eilif, is a soldier, hailed as a hero for killing peasants during wartime, executed for the same action during a brief period of peace. The third is Kattrin, a mute and loving soul.

Wendy Ishii, the founding artistic director of Bas Bleu, 
plays Mother Courage.
Wendy Ishii, the founding artistic director of Bas Bleu, plays Mother Courage.

Although Mother Courage travels with a disguised chaplain, she is more sexually interested in the Swiss cook, a man as hard and pragmatic as herself. Around these central figures, we see soldiers and peasants struggling to get by. At first you take some pleasure in watching Mother Courage, even admire her clever bargaining and her instinctive genius for survival. But as the war drags on, life gets progressively grimmer, and you realize that her haggling is not simply mean-spirited; it is evil.

Brecht is famous for his theories about audience alienation; he wanted his plays to inspire analytic thought rather than empathy. In structure, Mother Courage is an episodic epic, and it uses several distancing devices: The action of each scene is summarized ahead of time by a narrator (in many productions, the words are written on a placard); the script never illuminates the characters' inner lives, loves, fears, hopes; the dialogue is brusque. This is a tapestry of war that is neither heroic nor heraldic, but seen from the wrong side, with all the knots, rips and frayed edges on display. The action is punctuated with songs intended to give us time to reflect on what we've seen.

Yet at the climax of the play, Kattrin breaks out of the general moral paralysis to perform an act of astonishing heroism. Mute throughout the action, she makes a huge and sudden noise, sounding the warning Brecht intended for a sleeping Europe, one that we in America would do well to hear: Wake up. Defend yourself. The enemy is at the gate.

Mother Courageis hard to stage. It's long. It makes demands of an audience and requires a sense of history. Under the direction of Eric Prince, Bas Bleu performs with conviction and integrity. But there's one troubling element, and that is Barbara Clark's music. While a few of her songs carry that hard Kurt Weill edge, and sometimes the lyricism does jibe with the action, at other times the music -- with its folky, '60s sound -- is so sentimental as to be distracting.

The primary strength of the production lies in two central performances: Wendy Ishii's Mother Courage and Brenna A. Freestone's Kattrin. Ishii faces head-on the question of just what you're supposed to feel for a woman whose cunning condemns her own children and who is notable for one quality only: No matter what, she survives. Like Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, she can't go on and she does go on. Is there anything redemptive in this? Ishii's crude laugh and waddling gait suggest not. And yet she still communicates the full anguish of her children's death.

Freestone was a graceful Mrs. Chevely in OpenStage's An Ideal Husband a few months back. Here she uses her physicality in a very different way, making Kattrin a little gawky, a little off in terms of timing, as permanent outsiders tend to be. Unable to speak, her Kattrin is intensely expressive. The sweetly awkward dance of joy she does while showing off a pair of red boots catches at our hearts.

 
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