War prophets and profits

Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” looks at the many sides of war

Matt Graham

There is a point during the first act of “Mother Courage and Her Children,” Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 musical set during the 30 Years’ War, when the Chaplain (Grant Richey) says “To die in this war is a blessing, not an inconvenience. This is a war of faith Ö the king’s only interest is freedom.”

What’s that old cliché? “The more things change Ö”

Frank Theatre could not have chosen to stage a more timely show. Though it is over 60 years old and takes place more than 300 years ago, the twisted “Mother Courage” feels like it was written this month.

It is the story of Anna “Mother Courage” Fierling (Annie Enneking) and her three twenty-something children as they attempt to survive in Germany and Poland over the course of a perpetual war.

Mother Courage is the most opportune kind of capitalist. She makes her living hauling a cart around the continent, serving brandy and selling belt buckles and other discarded junk to soldiers and civilians in resource-depleted Europe.

She sees war as an extension of business as usual, but when her sons, the brave Eilif (John Redlinger) and the stupid but honest Swiss Cheese (Eric Sharp) join the war effort, she is less than pleased with its intrusion on her family life.

Mother Courage also has a daughter, Kattrin (Heather Bunch), who hasn’t been able to speak since an incident with a soldier when she was just a small child. Her mother is determined to keep Kattrin away from men “until the peace comes,” and she verbally abuses the girl, even rubs dirt all over her face in one scene, to keep her daughter meek and homely.

“Mother Courage and Her Children”

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; through Nov. 12
WHERE: The Pillsbury A Mill Machine Shop, 300 2nd St. S.E., Minneapolis
TICKETS: $18-20, (612) 724-3760

Really, Mother Courage doesn’t want the war to end. But as crass as she is, there are hints that she didn’t always behave this way. One of the musical’s early songs details the sorrowful story of her husband’s death in battle after she had begged him not to go. And she repeatedly makes cynical comments on how overrated taking a moral stand is – which seems to stem from youthful principles she since abandoned.

Now, she holds on to only one principle – money. While her heart is broken over what the war has done to her family, it’s never clear if she’s more upset with the potential of losing her children or losing help with her business.

In Brecht’s world, war and business are inseparable, with one a natural outcome of the other. Kings, generals and preachers prop up the war on higher ideals like God and “freedom,” but the continual rape, pillage and murder of the peasantry makes it clear that there’s only one thing the powers that be are fighting for – power. Within this environment, it’s hard to blame Mother Courage for her ways. She’s a survivor.

Enneking carries the production. Along with her powerful singing voice, she portrays the psychological torment of Mother Courage without losing her comedic timing, keeping the callous character sympathetic. Much of the rest of the acting is hit-and-miss, though Richey nails the arrogant, morally unsteady Chaplain. But the best performance comes from Bunch. Without ever speaking, her face is so expressive of Kattrin’s torment that she becomes the emotional center of the production.

“Mother Courage” is a dark musical. It’s also hilariously funny and the stripped-down musical numbers, most done with only one or two instruments, are all absurdly tuneful. Best of all, each piece moves the plot forward and never feel like an intrusion on Brecht’s observant, sharply crafted story.

On a shoestring budget, in the unlikeliest of locales (the sparse old Pillsbury A Mill Machine Shop – be sure to bring a coat), Frank Theatre artistic director Wendy Knox has put together a production that feels more informative than anything you’re likely to see on the evening news. It’s funny, if only because it’s true.