"Without a war, where do you get your moral standing from?" This line, from Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, wrings a dark chuckle from audiences today. Written in 1939 while the German dramatist was seeking safe haven from the Nazis, Mother Courage remains a timeless commentary on the absurdity of war. The play's poignancy emerges from the gulf separating those who launch wars -- popes, kings, emperors --and the soldiers, villagers, parents and children who pay its highest price. At Lost Nation Theater's current production of the play, it is impossible not to draw parallels with the current war in Iraq. Expect Mother Courage to endure as long as humanity's ugliest tradition.
Mother Courage is challenging in theme and form. It's a Brechtian epic set during the Thirty Years War -- a series of declared and undeclared wars that raged in the early part of the 17th century, pitting various nations against the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire. The play follows characters over long stretches of time and across a vast, war-ravaged terrain. Musical interludes give the work an operatic quality. In Bertolt Brecht in America, James K. Lyon notes that Brecht preferred writing plays that move seamlessly between action and song and performances that subvert the illusion of reality rather than create it. He uses comedy to the same end. Brecht's intention was not to inspire an emotional attachment to characters so much as to raise questions about the condition of the world depicted onstage and off.
Staging Brecht's work is likely to stretch any theater group to the limit, but Lost Nation comes through, if a bit unevenly.
As Mother Courage, Mary Baird shoulders the play's greatest burdens, sometimes literally. She and her three children pull a wagon across a treacherous landscape -- an open stage that scene designer Kevin Kelly has adorned with burlap. While trying to provide for her family, the matriarch fights to keep them from being drawn into the conflict. She is up against the cold-blooded capitalism of war -- including soldiers who could earn a few coins by recruiting her boys. She can haggle like nobody's business and laughs off the fact that she has borne three children from as many men. Yet she can also be convincingly desperate, fiercely protective, tender with longing and devastated in defeat.
Baird also possesses a singing voice well suited to the eerie, hymn-like melodies of Paul Dessau -- plaintive, desolate tunes sung to the piano accompaniment of musical director Michael Arnowitt, percussionist Thomas Murphey and, at select performances, guest pianist John Lincoln. As a Sergeant played by Mark Fiorillo says, "War is a deal. It cuts both ways. Whoever takes, also pays." He could be writing Mother Courage's epitaph.
While Mother Courage doesn't have much to laugh about, a Protestant chaplain played by Bob Nuner urges her to look on the bright side. He is one of a few characters she picks up along the way, and the play takes on buoyancy for his presence. Nuner's chaplain is the black-comic heart of the play, espousing absurd justifications -- even celebrations -- for the war. "War is like love," he muses. "It finds a way. Why should it ever end?"
G. Richard Ames' cook also adds a dash of levity to the production as he bargains with Mother Courage over a chicken and, later, offers his own jaded commentary on all that has transpired. Like several other actors among the 16-member cast, Ames reveals a depth of ability that fortifies this rambling play at moments when it seems close to collapsing by the roadside. Mary Wheeler as Yvette Pottier is also strong as one of the unfortunate women for whom survival means spending much of the war on her back. Ames and Wheeler both perform their musical numbers with warranted confidence.
Mother Courage's children, as their lineage would suggest, are a mixed bag. Eldest son Eilif, played by Roger Hamel, is the first to leave the fold on a journey that takes him into war's dark heart. As middle child Swiss Cheese, Scott Renzoni is a touch dreamy-headed, a bit less sure of himself than his elder; as a result, he becomes a different kind of war casualty. The mute Kattrin, played by Emily Lyons, is the youngest and most vulnerable of the brood. In the end, though, she carries out an act of heroism that suggests she has learned something from the indefatigable Mother Courage.
Mother Courage and Her Children is widely considered one of Brecht's more accessible plays -- which is a plus for LNT. Yet the challenges of mounting a work of such substance are evident in the production, particularly in the pacing. Director Andrew Doe has directed dozens of Brecht productions. Still, his cast sometimes seems to hold onto the gravity of moments a beat or two too long, and scene transitions are not always smooth. The effect, in this long journey of a play, is that it sometimes feels, well, long.
There's no question that Mother Courage merits a complete, un-abridged treatment, and the LNT production makes a worthy, well-timed contribution to the tradition of political theater. Even if this show doesn't rise to all Brecht's challenges with equal success, it is a truly bold step for this versatile troupe.