The Mother of All Wars

Welcome to the machine. Photo by Jim Voltz.

In light of the recent Blackwater scandal and other incidents in which the current administration parcels out its war responsibilities to civilian contractors who are not always the highest bidders or the most ethical, few classic plays seem more topical than Bertolt Brecht and Margarete Steffin's Mother Courage and Her Children.

Mother Courage is a war profiteer, pulling her supply wagon from army to bombed-out army, switching allegiances when necessary, selling the stray chicken, brandy, cloth or other small essential that offers a bit of comfort as the bullets whiz overhead. Peace is not her friend. When the bells of one small town ring in glorious rapture as a truce is declared, Courage's ever-present smile collapses in on itself because she's stuck with too much inventory.

Courage travels with her three children—and eventually loses them to the war machine she makes a living from, affirming Brecht and Steffin's uncompromising view of war: The poor are military cannon fodder; the top brass are incompetents, sadists or idiots; innocence suffers most; money is always behind hostilities; smart people don't fight unless they have to; wartime madness turns people into corrupt savages, whores and slaves. This is no flag-waving, support-the-troops propaganda—it's bitter, in-your-face truth.

And Courage is a lovely, monstrous creation—both on the page and onstage. In this very good production, as played by the remarkable Meredith Hinckley, Courage could easily be working for Halliburton. While a few decades too young to fully sell the character's worldly rapaciousness, Hinckley's layered performance makes you forget that she's the same age as the actors playing her kids.

Typical of a Steffin/Brecht collaboration, even the secondary women characters come off sympathetically, especially with director Denise Schulz's picture-perfect casting of Lee Lee Lawler as Courage's empathetic, war-ravaged daughter Kattrin (who breaks your heart in several scenes) and Nicki Monet Smyer as the ambitious whore Yvette Pottier.

Thumbing through my copy of Eric Bentley's translation, it's clear Sir David Hare's adaptation added a handful of "shits" and "fucks," tightened several scenes and brought the dialogue's politics closer to the surface, but it's damn close to the original—while feeling remarkably current.

The astonishing set design by Lindsey Gassaway—black skeletons of trees, gray earth and pillaged buildings, suggesting someone walked through with a flamethrower—the consistent, even-handed sound design by John Fisher and Matt Schleicher's gloomy/cheery/gloomy lighting design is some of the best work I've seen at the school.

Schulz is clearly sympathetic to the complex issues the play addresses and successfully delivers the goods to her audience. While one wishes she'd worked more with the actors in the ensemble who are not her leads—bringing parity to a large cast where some of the ensemble stride across the stage like they're walking to class—her staging is heartfelt and intelligent.

I've long felt that CSUF has the best actors in town, but the school is severely hampered by a far-too-timid play selection. A glance at their season reveals there's more than just Brecht to look forward to this season. Here's hoping Mother Courage is just the beginning of the department's more adventurous, relevant choices.

Mother Courage and her Children at the Young Theatre at the Cal State Fullerton Performing Arts Center, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 278-3371; Thurs.-Fri., 8 P.M.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Oct. 21. $8-$18.

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