War is unkind to humans, but damn good for business.
This is the truth so comically and tragically portrayed in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, now onstage at the Rogue Theatre. It's an epic production of Brecht's so-called "epic theater," which eschews sentimentality and romanticism and unsparingly spreads before us some ugly truths about who we are and what we value.
One of Brecht's most well-known pieces, it was first performed in 1941, in Switzerland, of all the least war-inclined places. Its setting is the far-flung battlefields of Europe during the Thirty Years' War, in particular the period from 1624 to 1636. The war pitted Catholics against Protestants, a holy war (imagine that!), one of the many ironies Brecht pounces on in his story of one of the more celebrated "single mothers" in theater history.
Anna Fierling, aka Mother Courage (Cynthia Meier), both necessarily and willingly takes on the task of providing for herself and her three children by operating a traveling canteen, selling supplies to soldiers. A shrewd and committed materialist, she has great survival instincts, which include a willingness to forgo loyalty and commitment to one side or another, running a different flag up the flagpole when expedient and offering her wares in whatever camp she finds herself. She is not an ideologue, but a businesswoman.
She professes care and devotion for her children and provides for them the best she can through her rolling enterprise. Yet over the course of the play, they all suffer from her attention to her business. Eilef (Christopher Johnson) is lured away to a regiment while her focus is making a deal elsewhere; Swiss Cheese (Matt Bowdren), a simple but honest lad whose mother gets him a job as the regiment pay clerk to keep him from the front lines, loses the cashbox and is killed because his mother haggles about the price she will pay for of his release. And mute daughter Kattrin (Dylan Page), who, maternally speaking, is her mother's opposite, longs for love and marriage and children, which she is promised by her mother when peace comes, while Courage is laying bets on the probability that peace will never come. But Kattrin is given a disfiguring facial wound by a soldier, negating her hopes of that maternal life. Even so, she acts on her desire to serve a good greater than merely making a living, putting her life at risk in an attempt to foil a surprise attack on a village—all while her mother is absent, conducting business.
The Rogue offers a very respectable production of a complex play. Meier is strong as Mother Courage, who is constantly contradicting herself, rationalizing, observant of her world, but blind to herself. She is neither wholly likable nor unlikable. Her biggest failure is that she doesn't learn. She continues her inexorable march—sans children and yoked to her now-ragged cart—toward her own dissolution, although she sees it as the necessary business of survival.
The cast ably assists in the heavy lifting of the dense ideas and demanding embodiment of Brecht's story and style, which includes much humor, particularly in his songs. But there's a lack of storytelling momentum, which makes the production seem a little too long. And if you're wondering about Brecht's famous so-called "alienation" effect, worry not. Theater has become so deconstructed since Brecht's time that nothing here seems jarring or even unusual.
One of the most outstanding contributions of the Rogue's version of the play is the music, all composed specifically for this show by Tucsonan Tim Blevins. He and fellow musicians Dawn C. Sellers (who is also the musical director), Daniel Mendoza and Renie Sweeney offer not only accompaniment for Brecht's outrageously wonderful lyrics, but also give the entire evening a wonderfully appealing dimension.
In an interview with the Arizona Daily Star, director Joseph McGrath said he believes the play is not so much about how horrible war is, but about how we collude with the powers that be by choosing to participate in the business of war. It's more an anti-business play than an anti-war play. Certainly that's part of the story, and he makes it clear by the way he focuses the storytelling.
But if you're poor and struggling and there are limited opportunities for more "honorable" work, the business of war can provide a means of getting one's needs met. Soldiers get paid and those who can provide for the needs of soldiers have steady work. War can at least stave off the wolves of homelessness and starvation. The poor have very little power and thus very little choice.
But McGrath chooses not to emphasize the bitter roots of Mother Courage's ambitions. He doesn't allow her to play the victim, because one has even less power when one assumes that role. Mother Courage earns her name because she is determined to survive even though she finds herself caught up in the most unsavory circumstances of human exploitation. The tragedy is that she is exploited by the system at the same time she is exploiting it.
As long as there is such a chasm between the haves and the have-nots, war is a practical probability. Which means, of course, that war is as inherent in our civilization as the business of economic survival.
So this is what we have to work with. Brecht posits that, within this paradigm, we must consider and claim our power as individuals, no matter how indifferent that power may seem. It might be easy enough to say this to a group of mostly educated folks with full stomachs and enough money to purchase theater tickets. But say it the Rogue does, and leaves us to think about our roles in the insufferable consequences of poverty and materialism.