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SF Weekly, August 13, 2003


The Business of War
Capitalism and its discontents in an old-fashioned Shotgun Players production

- Michael Scott Moore


"Damn this fucking war," says Mother Courage in a moment of clarity, just after she gets through damning an imminent peace. The heroine of Bertolt Brecht's great protest play is an army-supply merchant, pulling her rickety wagon along the fringes of battle during the Thirty Years' War. She's played by Trish Mulholland, in the Shotgun Players' outdoor production, as a lewd, coarse, bug-eyed old woman, devastatingly practical as well as flirty and suggestive. She also -- in David Hare's fresh translation, which has never before been mounted in the Bay Area -- doesn't mince words.

"You prick!" she says to more than one soldier. "You slut," she says to her own daughter, a mute girl who steals a pair of pretty red boots from a battlefield whore. When army spies inspect the wagon for stolen money, though, Mother Courage tries to throw them off the scent. "We're respectable!" she says. "We're in business."

Mother Courage, like Hedda Gabler, is one of the great female roles written during what's loosely called the modern age (meaning the last century or so). She's not courageous at all. The name is a bitter joke, bestowed on Anna Fierling after she braves a bombardment in Riga to save her stock of bread. She's a petty, provincial German woman uprooted by war and forced to live by her wits. Her lines in German have a tough irony that's hard to render in translation, and Helene Weigel's landmark performance in 1949 -- which established both the Berliner Ensemble as a great theater and Mother Courage and Her Children as a great play -- has never been matched in other languages. Brecht's gallows wit goes missing, and under the weight of so much tradition the show in English tends to become a long slog.

Both Hare and the Shotgun Players have made war on this tradition. Hare's translation is blunt and funny, and the Shotgun cast -- especially Mulholland -- lacks proper respect, as it should. A percussion band called Goatsong uses pans, hubcaps, a plastic tom-tom, a whistle, a siren, and an accordion to wheeze out ramshackle gypsy numbers and mimic the noise of falling bombs. John Thomas, who wrote the original score for this production (and also plays the chaplain), captures Kurt Weill's cabaret spirit in some of his melodies, which Mulholland matches in her hoarse, saucy singing. She can't always carry a tune, but she projects a big Broadway energy to the audience in a sunny outdoor space (the amphitheater at Berkeley's John Hinkel Park), and makes Mother Courage charming in spite of her worldly cynicism. In the most powerful number, Mulholland dances like a haggard trollop in gold jewelry, singing, "Nobody try to tell me this is different/ War's a business and it's just like all the rest."

Director Patrick Dooley never refers (thank God) to the Iraq War; no one utters the word "oil." But they don't have to. The Thirty Years' War was a long, on-again/ off-again conflagration between rising Protestant states and the aging, Catholic Holy Roman Empire. It burned out the heart of Europe between 1618 and 1648, killing half the German population; battles roamed (like Mother Courage) from Bohemia to the borders of Russia and France. Fine words about "liberating" people from the oppressive Catholic empire were used as a reason for war, but in the end it was a struggle for influence that rearranged the map of Europe.

Brecht played on German memories of this slaughter to undermine the rhetoric of heroism during World War II. For him a profiteer like Mother Courage, who thrives on war but doesn't want her children to die, was an icon of capitalism, and he wrote the play in 1941 to implicate Europe in Hitler's disaster. "I imagined the playwright's warning voice would be heard from the stages of various great cities," wrote Brecht, "proclaiming that he who would sup with the devil must have a long spoon."

What he ended up with was not just a wicked political cartoon, but also a sarcastic, full-blooded tragedy of a conflicted woman. The play speaks to any war. And Mulholland does a beautiful job of filling out Mother Courage's various possibilities: her grief, her wise-ass commentary, her scolding of children, her haggling over the price of a hen.

Mulholland also has strong support from some of the cast, especially Gwen Larsen as the mute daughter Kattrin. Without saying a word (although she does a lot of moaning), Larsen plays an expressive, agonized young woman struggling with everyday hardship as well as her own intractable mother. ("Look, the boots!" cries Mother Courage, to cheer up Kattrin after she's been raped by a soldier. "You've always wanted them. Put them on before I change my mind" -- and Kattrin just drops them, heartbreakingly, to one side.)

Roham Shaikhani is a funny, decrepit old colonel, slobbering over a local prostitute; as an army cook and friend of Mother Courage he also sings a marvelous duet about virtue. Leith Burke is a solid Eilif, the heroic son; Andy Alabran plays an amusingly neurotic Swiss Cheese, the son who gets riddled with holes. The actors playing miscellaneous fringe characters tend to line-read, though. The live core of this show is surrounded by tin soldiers.

Valera Coble's ragged costumes and Michael Frassinelli's excellent wooden wagon add color and detail; Frassinelli is an old Shotgun hand who's returned from the East Coast to work on this program. (So is Leith Burke.) In fact, this Mother Courage feels like an old-fashioned Shotgun production, with all the usual virtues on display -- humor, irreverence, a cheerful willingness to offend -- most of which seem to live in the heart of Trish Mulholland.

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