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A different profile in `Courage'

July 03, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

The title character of Bertolt Brecht's masterpiece "Mother Courage and Her Children" may be the toughest role to cast in modern drama. American actors tend to idealize the indomitable merchant matriarch who drags her canteen cart through battlefields, selling enlisted men scrawny chickens and cheap booze to keep her family just above the poverty line.

But Brecht was far from sentimental about the duality of her nature. She's no Hallmark icon. Her acid cynicism alone should give pause to anyone trying to pass her off as an emblem of maternal strength and survival. Tellingly, the author envisioned Ethel Merman as his ideal American Mother -- not exactly the performer who comes to mind when you want to accentuate the softer side.

Ivonne Coll, the Mother Courage of Lisa Peterson's worthwhile though patchy revival at the La Jolla Playhouse, doesn't have the stature you'd expect from an actress assuming the role. She has neither the honed presence of Helene Weigel (Brecht's partner who became the 20th century face of the character) nor the yiddishe mama grit of Anne Bancroft (who drew mixed reviews in the 1963 Broadway premiere).

What Coll, a Latina actress with a low-key authenticity, brings is a relaxed, wash-and-wear humanity -- a quality that would have been better appreciated with a stronger voice, more committed line readings and less general fuzziness. Yet there's an emotional content to her relationships that has a stirring cumulative effect.

Although Brecht isn't supposed to touch our feelings -- his theory insistently stresses the priority of sociopolitical analysis -- he was a consummate man of theater whose work availed itself of poignant sentiment not as an end in itself (like most cathartic drama) but as enhancement to critical enlightenment.

"Mother Courage and Her Children" isn't a simple character study. Nonetheless, the contradictions in Anna Fierling encapsulate the quandary posed by the play: Can an individual be complicit with a system of destruction without falling victim to its murderous indifference?

Written at the start of World War II and set during the protracted 17th century European conflict known as the Thirty Years' War, Brecht's classic (adapted here by British playwright David Hare) confirms that the business of war is the business of business. Cornered by economic necessity, Mother Courage tries to profit from the incessant military upheaval between Catholics and Protestants that's otherwise made life an unmitigated disaster for the common people.

Her biggest fear is that peace will suddenly break out, leaving her with a huge unsold inventory. Practical minded to a fault, she can't help dispensing realpolitik wisdom to her three children, whom she wants to see attain decently fed civilian existences. Yet she fails to connect her own small-time entrepreneurial operation with the larger multinational one that constricts her choices and slowly but surely mows down her offspring.

The La Jolla production, which moves after a midsummer hiatus to Berkeley Rep in September, is a success insofar as it never lets you lose sight of the brilliance of Brecht's play. Peterson's staging, enhanced by Gina Leishman's music, keeps the epic tale moving with just the right rough grace.

Best of all, the direction avoids the trap of overindulging in Brecht's voluminous theory. Peterson dabbles in the signature trappings of epic theater (for example, scene titles, masks and other playful reminders that we're indeed witnessing a play). Wisely, though, she recognizes that the drama is a highly effective theatrical work whose clarity would be diminished by too much clutter.

Mother Courage's grown children, played by UC San Diego MFA acting students, reveal a pained tenderness for one another that can only be a legacy of misguided love.

A vigorous physical performer, Scott Drummond transforms Eilif into a war machine that can't turn off even when the battle's won. Ryan Shams' puppy-dog innocence lends Swiss Cheese, the honest son with the double-digit IQ, a sharp pathos once he falls into trouble over a missing cashbox.

As Kattrin, the mute daughter who's raped and beaten, Hilary Ward is appropriately sympathetic. The one major shortcoming is with the famous scene in which Kattrin transforms into exactly what her mother fears most -- a hero not afraid of death. Peterson's staging here is clumsy, and Ward overplays the emotion.

As Yvette, the prostitute, Katie Barrett adeptly handles the multiplicity of demands Brecht's style places on a performer.

The men are competently rendered, with both Patrick Kerr as the chaplain (standing for religious hypocrisy) and James Eckhouse as the cook (an embodiment of dissolute appetite) clearly delineating their characters' warped perspectives.

If La Jolla's "Mother Courage" never fully ignites, it still courses with a theatrical intelligence that honors Brecht's own. And the haunting closing image of Coll's grief-stricken mother removing the salable shoes from her dead daughter before hitching up her cart carries more human insight into the mess we find ourselves in than all the recent antiwar dramas combined.


'Mother Courage and Her Children'

Where: La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Forum , 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: July 23

Price: $28 to $56

Contact: (858) 550-1010 or

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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