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Berkeley Daily Planet, September 12, 2003


Mulholland’s Drive Sparks This ‘Mother Courage’

- BETSY M. HUNTON Special to the Planet

Trish Mulholland does a powerful job in the title role of Bertolt BrechtØs mind-boggling anti-war classic, ²Mother Courage,Ó which opened Saturday at the theater in John Hinkle Park. This mesmerizing production is, wonderfully enough, a free performance: Shotgun TheaterØs annual gift to the community. You can bet that some people will go back to see it more than once.

Mulholland is supported by a talented cast. Among numerous excellent performances are the roles of Mother CourageØs three adult children: her two sons, ²Eilif,Ó (Leith Burke) and ²Swiss CheeseÓ (Andy Alabran) and her mute, largely ignored, daughter, Kattrin (Gwen Larsen). Mother CourageØs wagon full of overpriced, miscellaneous wares is pulled from place to place by her sons, following various armiesßtheyØre just customers to herßas they go through the horrors of the 17th centuryØs Thirty Years War.

That war was consciously chosen as the playØs background. It destroyed much of Europe in a futile struggle over power by Kings and Emperors. Two generations of German soldiers died in a war that ended in a truce that did not name either side as a winner.

All in all, this is a curious play. Brecht wanted to establish a new form of drama in which would differ radically from the traditional Aristotelian tragedy. He may have succeeded. You could even argue that itØs actually a musical tragi-comedy. There are a number of songs, reminiscent of the music in ²The Three-Penny Opera.Ó TheyØre accompanied by Henri DucharmeØs accordian and a collection of percussion instruments played by Josh Pollack. But, at least in this production, the music seems more decoration and comment than fundamental to the action of the play.

Brecht wrote ²Mother CourageÓ in 1938, presumably as a warning to Sweden and Germany about HitlerØs politics. The play, however, is easily read as being not so much anti-Nazi as it is anti-war. It could be argued that the work is actually a scathing indictment of the role of capitalism as a basis for war. The present national concerns about the purpose and costs of the military actions in the Middle East are uncomfortably relevant.

Brecht had hoped for immediate performances but was forced to flee the continent as the Nazis invaded. There was one wartime production in Switzerland in 1941 without BrechtØs participation. That audience saw Mother Courage as a victim, which prompted Brecht to make a number of subtle but important changes to the script. Mother CourageØs deliberate choice to be involved in, and make a livingfrom, war was clarified.

Director Patrick Dooley has elected to use a 1995 translation by British playwright David Hare (²SkylightÓ and ²The Blue RoomÓ) which emphasizes the playØs sarcastic humor. Dooley says that most English translations donØt tend to be as funny as the original. And it is this humor that adds to the playØs complexity.

It would be easy for the figure of the hardworking mother who suffers such losses to be sentimentalized. Just look at her name. But the act of ²courageÓ referred to was scarcely noble: She ran through gunfire to retrieve the bread that she wanted to sell. She lies and cheats and seems to have no ideas other than those connected to material gain. And thereØs certainly nothing soft and fuzzy about her mothering. Her idea of soothing her injured daughter is to assure her that her scars will make her so ugly that nobody will want to rape her.

Petty, materialistic, unscrupulous, insensitive, she is still a mother. Arguably she could be seen as a more of comic than tragic figure. Probably this is one of the few plays which truly deserves the classification ²tragi-comedy.Ó

Several actors play multiple parts. If there is a weakness in this production, (and it seems small-minded to nit-pick such fine work) it is the fact that budget issues required so much multi-tasking. There are times when a few of the actors become identifiable as the person who played another character in a previous scene. That said, itØs pleasing to notice the quality that is maintained among the actors in general.

All told, an excellent production of a terrific play.

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