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War ravages human virtue in Brecht's sharp 'Mother'

- Robert Hurwitt


"War, which is a continuation of business by other means," Bertolt Brecht wrote, "makes the human virtues fatal even to their possessors." In 1938, fleeing the Nazi war machine, Brecht dashed off a play to illustrate this point. "Mother Courage and Her Children" turned out to be not only great anti- war drama but one of the most inspired plays of the 20th century. Small wonder the Shotgun Players' production is packing the amphitheater in Berkeley's John Hinkel Park.

Topical plays are hot this summer, from the out-of-control capitalism of "Urinetown" to attacks on the pious hypocrisy of the powerful in the brilliant "Measure for Measure" at the California Shakespeare Theater and Moliere's "Don Juan" at the Marin Shakespeare Company. Anti-war plays have been particularly rife: "Lysistrata" at Stanford, Shaw's "Arms and the Man" at California Shakespeare, the San Francisco Mime Troupe's "Veronique of the Mounties."

"Mother Courage" retains the most compelling immediacy of them all. In his urgency to warn the world about the then-impending conflict, Brecht focused on war's systematic destruction of not only life but also such essential human virtues as courage, honesty, charity, altruism and love. Mother Courage, bottom-feeder war profiteer, is a survivor -- but only as a shell-shocked, venal husk of a human being.

David Hare's terse, invigoratingly coarse translation (created for a 1995 Royal National Theatre production starring Diana Rigg) captures the vigor and sardonic humor of Brecht's text. Patrick Dooley's smart, low-key, reasonably well-focused Shotgun production lacks some intensity, but makes up for that in clarity, wry humor, engaging performances and fidelity to the play's purpose.

The fourth in Shotgun's series of anti-war plays (Euripides' "Iphigenia in Aulis," Jean Giradoux's "There Will Be No Trojan War," Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida"), "Courage" is the first to move out of the realm of ancient Greece. The play takes place during the devastating Thirty Years' War of 17th century Europe. It traces episodes in the life of Anna Fierling (Trish Mulholland), Mother Courage, who follows the troops, selling whatever she can stock -- food, coats, buckles, shoes -- from her heavy wooden cart.

Anna makes no bones about living off the war. She panics every time peace threatens to break out. But she tries hard to protect her three children (by three fathers) from being numbered among its victims. Each represents a virtue, and each dies because of it -- Eilif (the magnetic, impetuous Leith Burke) for his bravery; Swiss Cheese (an engagingly naive, sweet Andy Alabran) for his honesty; the mute Kattrin (a beguiling, heartbreakingly sincere Gwen Larsen) for her altruism. With each death, and each choice she has to make between love and business, part of Anna dies, too.

It's one of the theater's greatest female roles, and Shotgun regular Mulholland embodies much of its essence. She's sharp and calculating, deft in her haggling, with a commercial sense that runs bone-deep. She sings Brecht's ironic songs with a breezy, defiant verve, and she thinks through her dilemmas with visibly limited resources. What's missing is a certain emotional depth. Her Anna lacks urgency when torn between saving her cart or Swiss Cheese's life and pathos in the end. She gives us an Anna who has learned too little, as Brecht designed, but not one who has been hollowed out from inside.

Musical director John Thomas (who also plays a chaplain hiding out with Anna) provides rich, complex song settings, capably performed by musicians Henri Ducharme and Josh Pollock and generally well sung by the cast. Dooley makes good use of Michael Frassinelli's ragged set pieces and Valera Coble's heavy period costumes to create eloquently gritty stage pictures. There's more to "Mother Courage" than this production realizes, but what it achieves is provocative and entertaining.

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