When you go to war the goal is to win, but in order to win you must, of course, survive.
For the title character in Bertolt Brecht’s landmark drama “Mother Courage and Her Children,” that survival becomes predicated on the war itself. That’s part of what makes the play such a challenge.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Arena Stage in Southwest Washington would be the venue for staging the production just as another round of wrangling over the Defense Department’s budget begins on Capitol Hill, with the Pentagon calling for a series of reductions that would adversely affect communities depending on military spending and personnel — regardless of the wisdom of recessions or another round of base realignment. There's also the matter of the looming conflict in Central Europe currently playing out between Ukraine and Russia.
“In light of where Brecht started the play, it might be easy to view the play simply as an ‘anti-war’ play, or as an ‘anti-business’ play, or to perceive Mother Courage as a ‘hero or a villain.’ But that is to see the world of the play in polarities,” production dramaturg Mark Bly wrote in an introduction in the program.
That complexity is what makes the script still so applicable.
And as portrayed by Kathleen Turner, Mother Courage is the incredibly complex character that Brecht probably intended her to be. Turner’s Mother Courage is a woman dedicated to trudging forward, through the both Polish-Swedish War and the Thirty Years' War.
Courage is shown as a woman who wants to protect her children, but also as one who knows the financial ruin that can come from having her iconic cart freshly restocked with merchandise at the outbreak of peace.
Turner rightly deserves credit for what’s being widely regarded as a masterful performance in the title role, including with a number of songs, for what Director Molly Smith said in a previous Arena Stage interview is “the first time Kathleen will be singing on stage, and believe me, she has an absolutely deep, earthy voice.”
It would be worth the price of admission for Turner alone, but this is Brecht, so great feature performances aside, another thrill of the show is watching well-executed changes to the performance space for each new scene.
What Mother Courage perceives is best for her family, particularly her daughter Kattrin who is unable to speak (portrayed by Erin Weaver), is for an unending cycle of war and the unending cycle of buying and selling that comes along with it, waving a Catholic or Protestant flag, depending on which way the wind blows.
The Arena Stage production reaches climactic peaks at the moments when Mother Courage’s children are lost, and this interpretation is at times brash, and certainly loud, with the ensemble acting as an orchestra and playing a wild assortment of instruments (even a saw) for the musical interludes that disrupt the action between and within Brecht’s various episodes.
Of course, if you wanted to watch a play that flowed without disruption, you wouldn’t be watching Brecht in the first place. The German playwright and director was a leader in tearing down the traditional trappings of theater, favoring what he called the “Verfremdungseffekt” — what in English has come to be known as the alienation effect.
The cast handles a scheduled break in the fourth wall late in the show with particular mastery, even if the audience didn’t offer the most robust response. A mostly full house took in the show one recent Friday evening, about midway through a run that’s scheduled through March 9. The actors were well into the groove, keeping up a typically exhaustive performance schedule.
Staging is such that the performers are in a sparsely decorated pit, with audience members on all sides in a stadium configuration. From just about any seat in the house, you can see performers acting as stagehands, setting up and later striking a dinner table and chairs, restocking Mother Courage’s cart when the next scene shows her when business is booming.
As the crisis in the Crimea plays out nearly 400 years after the events Brecht initially set the play, it's obvious the business cycle of war has continued to boom.