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SF Bay Guardian, August 6, 2003


Weapons of War
Shotgun Players brings Mother Courage to a new battlefield.

- Rob Avila

IN THE RECENT uproar over the Pentagon's ill-fated plan to launch a futures market in acts of terror, many rightfully protested the morbidity and immorality of "trading in death." Most ultimately chose to blame the rise of such an outlandish idea on retired admiral-convicted felon John Poindexter, holder, until this final flap, of the Pentagon's prestigious Dr. Strangelove Chair in Orwellian science. Few, if any, however, chose to stress the idea's inherent consistency. What was it, after all, but a rather too blatant refinement of a system already in place?

The fact is, the Pentagon, which soaks up taxes at a rate of more than a billion dollars a day and rising, already puts the most garish face on an enormous complex of interests that grow fat off death, destruction, and fear – not to put too fine a point on it. In this mix, war becomes more than a by-product of the pursuit of profit; it's profit's M.O. (Halliburton, anyone?)

Bertold Brecht's take on Carl von Clausewitz's observation about the nature of war was that it was "a continuation of business by other means." He used this in describing the intentions behind his antiwar masterpiece Mother Courage and Her Children – a play that, judging by Shotgun Players' terrific production, remains as fresh and vital to our day as it was to the war-wracked 1940s.

The play, set in the wasting decades of the 17th century's Thirty Years War, focuses on Anna Fierling (a witty and commanding Trish Mulholland), a merchantwoman known as "Mother Courage" because she once raced her canteen wagon across a battlefield to rescue her perishable inventory. Mother Courage makes her living by following the armies of the Protestant rebels and the Catholic Holy Roman Empire across Europe, accompanied by her three grown children, a mongrel brood derived from three brief liaisons. As the play opens, two soldiers recruiting for the Protestant army approach her sons, Eilif (Leith Burke) and Swiss Cheese (Andy Alabran), who pull the wagon in which their mute sister, Kattrin (Gwen Larsen), rides alongside her mother. Desperate to throw the recruiters off the hunt, Mother Courage performs a little fortune-telling, warning of doom for any who enter the army. Eilif, however, goes off with them anyway in search of adventure and glory.

The opening scene, with its foreshadowing of death, already summarizes the central dilemma of the title character and the play. As the recruiting sergeant (Dave Maier) puts it to her: "You're doing very nicely out of the war. How's it supposed to go on without soldiers?" If Mother Courage will feed on war, in other words, war will in turn feed on her children.

This plays out in 12 short scenes, interspersed with smart and smarting songs on the nature of life during wartime (the production features an original score performed by dynamic duo Henri Ducharme and Josh Pollock, under musical director John Thomas). Along the way, Brecht sends up the hollow platitudes of a war defended as "holy" by its instigators, from the piffle of a sadistic commanding officer (Daniel Bruno) about "liberating" the masses to the hilarious scriptural contortions of a venal clergyman (John Thomas). When it comes to the true meaning of God and country, Mother Courage's nonchalance in hoisting the Catholic flag in place of the Protestant one atop her wagon as soon as the political winds blow the other way pretty much says it all. Other characters fill out the social spectrum in a world turned upside down, including, memorably, the prostitute Yvette (Judy Phillips) and a philandering cook (Roham Shaikhani, in a wonderful comedic performance).

The plot turns on the stinging irony that her children's principal virtues (Eilif's bravery, Swiss Cheese's honesty, and Kattrin's compassion) contribute, in the perverse mirror of war, to their downfall. Meanwhile, Mother Courage's dogged determination to make her way in her line of work, far from seeming a virtue, looks terribly misconceived. While savvy as hell, she is hopelessly invested in a system that ultimately works against her true interests.

Brecht has an unfair reputation of being heavy going. In fact, Mother Courage shows he is quite light – that's not to say superficial, but agile, ebulliently clever, and thought provoking. His sincere anger remains tempered by a sly humor that embraces at once the base, the absurd, and the marvelous in life. The humor gets refracted in much of the absurdist theater that developed in the wake of his career, although Brecht isn't an absurdist because he has a solution to offer. His critique contains the possibility of a new social reality. This spark still animates the play, and Shotgun's production keeps a jaunty eye on it throughout.

Offering Mother Courage as its annual free outdoor performance, Shotgun Players – which has geared much of its last two seasons to the problem of war – knows what it's doing with Brecht, both politically and aesthetically. Under the astute care of artistic director Patrick Dooley, Mother Courage resists the maudlin and, for all of the genuine sadness the play evokes, conveys a stirring wit. When, in the penultimate scene, Kattrin sounds the alarm that wakes the town in the nick of time to the danger at its gates, her final act echoes the tocsin sounded by Brecht. It's a gesture this production takes up with consistent insight and verve. We feel ourselves awoken by the call. All that's left is to imagine what we do next.

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