Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

It Takes Courage to Present Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage

Also see Richard's review of The Marriage of Figaro, Sweet Charity and Travesties

Ivonne Coll
Berkeley Repertory Company is currently presenting Bertolt Brecht's bizarre 1939 political drama Mother Courage at their Roda Theatre. This is a co-production with La Jolla Playhouse. This play is always difficult to present, with its rambling plots, covered dialogue, intermingling songs, far-off emotions and dense language. The last time I saw a production of this play was 20 years ago when the students of the University of Sussex presented the provocative drama. That production was intense and full of angry anti-American sentiment.

Berkeley Repertory Company's is an entertaining version of the political drama which contains many humorous occurrences in the almost three-hour production with music. As a "dyed in the wool" Brecht fan, I found this presentation clever and droll. Ivonne Cole (in New York, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Shakespeare on Broadway) is superb as as Mother Courage, an itinerant peddler dragging a wagonful of wares across the battlefields of Europe, unsuccessfully struggling to keep her children alive through the 17th century religious Thirty Years' War. The only way she can survive is through cunning and pragmatism.

Mother Courage has been called the female King Lear and it does demand both physical and vocal dexterity, as well as theatrical and comic know-how. It is not an easy role for an actress but Ivonne Cole has these amazing assets. It is also not an easy play to stage, but director Lisa Peterson has succeeded in presenting an enjoyable production with solid acting by the whole cast. She has staged this production almost like a musical circus with a small band consisting of a tuba, accordion, drummer and piano. There are 12 songs in 12 scenes and the music sounds like early '30s Kurt Weill with lyrics that are very much like Bertolt Brecht. The director keeps things moving swiftly, and you forget it is a three-hour long play.

The bitterness of the playwright, who wrote this play in 1939 after Germany invaded Poland and he found sanctuary in Sweden, seems to have been defused. There is still the thesis of war and its clout to make mankind to be brutal, mercenary and down right brainless. The drama is still set in the horrendous world of endless wars where good quality is a weak point and vice is power. As Mother Courage says, the injustices of peacetime could be worst.

Jarion Monroe (Old Wicked Songs, Our Town) give a galvanizing performance as The Cook. He gives a dynamic delivery of "The Song of Solomon" in one of the last scenes. He almost steals each scene in which he appears. Patrick Kerr (Tartuffe at the Guthrie, now a Los Angeles actor who appeared in The Underpants at the Geffen and Dealer's Choice at the Taper plus many television appearances) is a delight as the mousy defrocked chaplain.

Drew Hirshfield ( Another Golden Rome and Happy End at ACT) and Justin Leath (Happy End) give excellent performances as Mother Courage's sons while Katie Huard (ACT graduate school) is poignant as the non-speaking daughter. Katie Barrett (La Jolla Playhouse actress) gives a vivacious performance as the sneering whore Yvette. She looks like a young Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage and has the perfect voice for an early Kurt Weill sound.

Marc Damon Johnson, Brent Hinkley and Justin Leath give strong performances in various roles while musicians David W.Collins, Mark Danisovszky and Ara Anderson give out those Germanic type melodies that were prevalent in 1930s Europe.

Mother Courage is played out on a large, almost bare stage with a circus-like atmosphere. There are strings of colored lights hanging above the stage. Mother Courage's wagon of wares is a longer version of an old World War II Jeep. There are black walls with chalk scribbling being done through the performance. Rachel Hauck's design makes it look like a Brechtian play. Lighting by Alexander V. Nichols is very effective and the sounds of war by Jill BC DuBoff are very realistic.

Mother Courage plays in the main Roda Theatre of Berkeley Repertory Company through October 22nd. The theatre is located at 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or toll free 888-4-BRT-Tix or

The Repertory's next production will be the world premiere of Stew's Passing Strange, opening on October 19th on the company's Thrust Stage.

Photo: Kevin Berne

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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