Bertolt Brecht’s sprawling, thorny antiwar drama Mother Courage and Her Children can daunt even a well-established company. Subscension Theatre's decision to stage it as its second production ever might then seem like the folly of youth. Yet the nascent troupe compensates for its lack of polish with a healthy dose of ambition and strong ideas. Performed outdoors at Headhouse Square in Queen Village, this Mother Courage cuts through Brecht’s relentless didacticism to the human tragedy underneath, while still communicating the horror of conflict.
Written on the cusp of World War II, as Hitler’s forces spread east across Europe and Brecht prepared to ride things out in California, the play explores the complicated relationship between society, warfare, and capitalism. Subscension uses Tony Kushner’s modernized, irreverent adaptation, which debuted at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Needless to say, it takes little to recognize its relevance to our perilous current moment in history. Part of the work’s staying power lies in its sad universality—like war itself, it cuts across national and cultural boundaries.
Subscension’s staging, under the inventive direction of Elise D’Avella, doesn’t strain to draw contemporary parallels, although her decision to cast only women and nonbinary actors underlines the perilous position in which marginalized groups often find themselves in the midst of battle. Sarah Fickling’s costumes limn time periods, suggesting Brecht’s actual setting during the Thirty Years’ War straight through to the present day. The bare-bones set design and props (furnished by Chris Serpentine) similarly feel ageless—Mother Courage (the commanding Katherine Perry) could be pulling her rickety wagon across any battlefield, past, present, or future.
The somewhat crude storytelling centers around Courage, a woman whose single-minded desire to make money essentially engineers the deaths of her three children. She is a figure by turns revolting and relatable, a person pushed to the limits of humanity by her circumstances. Her hardened outer shell houses a soul that knows right from wrong, whether or not she actually follows the correct path. Brecht paints Courage as someone who has loyalty only to the almighty dollar, selling to any army with cash to buy, and forcing the audience to consider how we might act if presented with similar circumstances.
Perry exhibits enviable stamina in the massive role, playing Courage as a seductive yet conflicted creature who wrestles with her own sense of moral equivocation. Rarely have I been so struck by the internal struggle of this character as she tries to marry a sense of compassion to her convictions as a businesswoman. This painful duality becomes especially evident as she hesitates to pay the ransom that might free her soldier son Swiss Cheese (Jane Lloyd, brash and compelling), holding out for a better price until it’s too late. Her tightfisted devotion to the dollar costs the life of someone she loves—the moment is wrenching, but it’s tempered by the knowledge that Courage must pack up and endure.
Yet we’re also reminded of the character’s magnanimity, as when she refuses to abandon her mute daughter Kattrin (the deeply moving Kristen Phaneuf) during lean times. Perry and D’Avella imply that Courage can learn from her mistakes and correct the behavior that caused them. That knowledge—the idea that growth has occurred, that goodness is now present—works to make the subsequent losses even more shattering.
A rare sense of intimacy
The commentary-like songs Brecht embedded in the play have been set here by Kevin Mucchetti, whose musical style surprisingly evokes a 60s-era pop sound. The bubblegum lightness can be somewhat jarring when juxtaposed with the moody texts, but more often than not, it serves the material well by disarming the listener for a gut punch. That felt especially true in the arresting “Song of Solomon,” in which Courage’s sometimes-lover, an army cook (Donovan Lockett), recounts how righteous men always meet ignominious ends. D’Avella stages the number like a spirited nightclub performance, microphone stand and all, and Lockett sells it for all it’s worth.
The nontraditional playing area could have been used a bit more thoughtfully, and its long, skinny catwalk layout sometimes made it hard to focus when multiple scenes take place simultaneously in different sections. Although the performers are amplified, they don’t always make themselves heard above the hum from passing cars and sidewalk-cafe chatter. At times it also felt like the actors rushed their dialogue, when more deliberate pacing might have underscored the points of the piece with greater force.
Still, the production succeeds through a sense of intimacy one rarely encounters with political theater. Subscension’s Mother Courage gets to the root of the rot Brecht wanted the world to see, and the result can be devastating. Each time Courage takes the reins of her wagon, weary and wounded but marching onward, we must confront the unending destruction that travels with her.
What, When, Where
Mother Courage and Her Children. By Bertolt Brecht, in a translation by Tony Kushner. Directed by Elise D’Avella. Subscension Theatre. Through May 17, 2019, at the Shambles at Headhouse Square, 104 Lombard Street, Philadelphia. [email protected].
Accessibility: The Shambles at Headhouse Square is an open-air, wheelchair-accessible venue. Patrons with questions about accessibility can email Subscension Theatre representatives at [email protected].