KPBS AIRDATE: October 23, 1996
MUSIC: “Mother Courage Theme”
It’s all a matter of courage and backbone. It isn’t easy to start a new theater company, and it’s more than a challenge to begin with Brecht. So what could be more apt than “Mother Courage” as the first production of Backbone Theatre?
Rosina Reynolds, the Executive/Artistic Director of the Actors Alliance, and director Steve Gallion are co-producing the 1939 Bertolt Brecht classic, in association with Lamb’s Players Theatre.
Center-stage, in a long-awaited return to acting, Reynolds is a portrait of Courage: stern face, sensible hat, no-nonsense clothes. Brecht would appreciate her portrayal. The playwright became enraged when actresses made Courage noble or even courageous. To him, she was a cynical, passive protagonist, a negative heroine, a leech, a finagler, a capitalist. One of the ironies of this brutal but lyrical invention is how unforgettable the character is, how bitterly sage and humanistically rich. Both the woman and the play are extraordinary survivors.
“Mother Courage and Her Children,” written between the two World Wars, was originally set in the 17th century, during the Thirty Years War — a battle which began as a religious conflict and degenerated into a political one, ultimately devastating central Europe, especially Brecht’s native Germany. Twelve episodes, here for some reason divided into 14 scenes, provide a trenchant anti-war statement, a searing admonition against war profiteering. It could be any war, any place, any time. So this production’s setting in modern-day Bosnia works just fine, as do the minor changes to Eric Bentley’s poetic translation.
The play traces the wanderings of Mother Courage (one Anna Fierling) a canteen woman who sells the soldiers trifles from her trademark wagon, lugged along by her three children. She intends to make a living from the war while keeping her offspring out of it. One by one, as foretold in an early scene, her children are caught up in the perversity of the war, and each dies a violent death..
To Brecht, the stage was a place to agitate for political change. His “epic theater,“ a radical and innovative technique, was designed not to stir up sympathy and emotion, but to create a politically conscious distance between the spectator and the stage. Director Gallion and his design team have stayed pretty loyal to the original intention.
MUSIC, under (dance break from “The Wise Woman and the Soldier”)
The setting is a mere suggestion, the costumes are generic, the music, composed by Derek Bodkin, combines the comic and the ominous, a startlingly appropriate mix of folk, cabaret and military rhythms. Ron Choularton, in multiple roles, shines in his sardonic song and dance number.
All the supporting cast is versatile, if variable, in their roles. Once Reynolds stops being screamy, and settles into her portrayal, she is, like the character, driven, defiant, unbowed.
MUSIC under and out: “Mother Courage Theme,” Finale)
As her wide-eyed, mute daughter Kattrin, Chrissy Vogele is luminous, beating that memorable drum-scene into our brains. At the end, I would’ve liked to see Courage all alone, on her own, not the centerpiece of some Iwo Jima tableau. A minor complaint; this is high drama by any definition.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.