… Mother C …

Written in 1939 in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and <her Children is set in the 17th Century during the Thirty Years War.  It goes beyond theater, standing in the minds of those who know it as an archetypal image of war as seemingly endless, futile and cruel. A Play On War is presented as being inspired by Brecht’s Mother Courage but this production by the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) is essentially Brecht’s play.

Mother Courage (here called variously “The One on the Cart”, “The One Who Watches Television”, or “Mama C”) makes a living for herself and her children by selling items to soldiers from the wagon she wheels through a war torn countryside.  She profits from the war and, one by one, loses her three children to it:  her older son, her younger son, and her mute daughter, until at the end she has nothing but the wagon.  There it is in its powerful nutshell.

The machine of war grinds each of its characters, innocent or perpetrators, smart or stupid, or the usual mixed bag, to dust.  The characters aren’t revealed to the audience through their words and actions;  they’re emblematic and used to express Brecht’s ideas and visions.  We know who they are from the start and they don’t change;  their situations change, all beyond their control.  And which side you’re on doesn’t matter:  you loose on both sides.

Visually this production is original and intriguing.  The white, simplified costumes support the symbolic nature of the characters;  as a friend pointed out, white is a color of mourning in the Japanese tradition and, particularly interesting for Brecht’s title, is also associated with courage.  The movement is choreographic rather than naturalistic.  Aspects of Arabic clowning and the Beijing opera are included, as we’re told.  The “bad guys” (of the moment), soldiers who come to grab civilian recruits, ride threateningly fast on child-size bicycles, a particularly effective way of conveying Brecht’s thoughtless, fascist toughs.  The music, both as background and as accompaniment, is evocative and warms the experience of watching the play.

A variation on Brecht’s script is that instead of a continuous time line, the narrative shifts back several years every time it takes up another child’s life, returning to the point where that child’s story veers off to bad.  This was not a good decision:  although fate holds a different end for each child, they interact as members of one family so this device comes across as repetitive and makes the play seem overlong.

em>Mother Courage is challenging, exciting and iconic but it’s not seductive.  The characters are not “well rounded” and “sympathetic”:  Brecht truly brings us into the play of ideas on all counts.  Restarting the story several times as here turns a powerful but challenging play into a marathon.  It doesn’t help that Brecht’s twelve years of war in twelve scenes is turned into over twenty!  Nevertheless there are some intriguing visual and musical ideas.  They don’t remove A Play on War an arm’s length from the original, but they provide some stimulating ways of experiencing Brecht’s play which is, itself, highly stylized and open to experimentation.

A Play on War is at the Connelly Theater in Manhattan’s East Village February 12 through March 6.

Jon Norman Schneider as Suez Cheese and Nikki Calonge as Birdie in NAATCO's <em>A Play on Words.</em> Photographer William P. Steele

Jon Norman Schneider as Suez Cheese and Nikki Calonge as Birdie in NAATCO’s A Play on Words. Photographer William P. Steele

Mia Katigbak as Mama C, Marcus Ho as Rev and Orville Mendez as Cookie in NAATCO's <em>A Play on War.</em>  Photographer William P. Steele

Mia Katigbak as Mama C, Marcus Ho as Rev and Orville Mendez as Cookie in NAATCO’s A Play on War.  Photographer William P. Steele