Monday, November 09, 2015

Jeanne Paulsen leads strong cast in "Mother Courage"

Mother Courage (John Ulman)
Mother Courage and Her Children
Seattle Shakespeare Company
Through November 22, 2015

Jeanne Paulsen provides a strong and appropriately stalwart performance of the title character in Mother Courage and Her Children at Seattle Shakespeare Company. This is the most well-known of Bertolt Brecht’s plays, though seldom performed.

The character’s real name is Anna Fierling, but she’d been given the nickname Courage while dashing among fighting soldiers to sell them moldy bread. She’s to small businesses what Trump is to towers: the ultimate example, augmented by PR.

A cast of many members, the play is focused on a period called The Thirty Years’ War between 1618 and 1648. The period itself was a series of conflicts that morphed from a Protestant/Catholic war into one regarding the French vs. The Hapsburgs for dominance in Europe. Fierling and her three children wander the countryside selling her wares and trying to stay above the conflict.

They doggedly (or some might think cynically) work to survive by selling wares that soldiers need, making their profit off the war machine. But during the course of their journeys, she loses each child.  Eilif (Trick Danneker) is attracted by the glory of joining the fight.

Swiss Cheese (Spencer Hamp) works on the side of the Protestants until the Catholics overrun him. Despite his mother’s attempt to buy his freedom, he is killed. Kattrin (Chesa Greene) is left to guard the cart while Mother goes to town, and when the town is attacked, Kattrin tries to beat a drum to warn the town – saving the town but losing her life.

This production includes music written for Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, though the play is always intended to include music. The cast of this production includes some excellent singers and some actor/singers who keep tune and do a credible job. The idea of the songs is not to sing them excellently, though. Brecht wished to use them to push the audience “out” of the play experience, to help with the alienating effect he was going for, many times as commentary for what is happening.

The alienating effect might work a bit too well, here. While the cast does a good job, by the end, the effect is close to making the audience not care. There are hints that more humor can be used, even in a very dark play, and some of the humor that is apparent is thrown away. Director Jeff Steitzer usually takes advantage of humor, so it seems unusual for him to skip what would be helpful to grab for.

Brecht meant this to be a polemic against war. We are deep into the longest war in U.S. history and on the verge of being pulled deeper into an undeclared war in Syria, so we have much to identify with. Brecht points out that there is always a war somewhere. It has always been true on this Earth, since civilizations began.

Mother Courage is a woman who can be lauded for her dogged survival instincts, but at the beginning of the play she has three children, and at the end of the play she has none. Yet she trundles on. She also does not appear to learn from her own mistakes and contributions. That is directly what Brecht wants us to think about her. Is she strong for sacrificing or blind to her own contributions to her children’s fates?

Brecht wrote the play on the eve of World War II, but to avoid censorship set the play during the 1600s, able then to opine on current affairs using long ago history. Two soldiers begin by mocking the nearby town for “doing anything they please” and “not even knowing each other’s names” as a consequence of the awful state of affairs that peace brings. Peace has no order.

War brings the opportunity for great profits and reliable shortages filled by smart peddlers. This is what Anna counts on. However, she also believes deeply in her ability to exempt her family from the troubles others find in war – to her deep disappointment.

This is a solid effort from Seattle Shakespeare Company. It can’t be said to be an exciting success, however.

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