The prickly political satires of German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) nowadays seem like tough nuts to crack. When productions capture the key stylistic aspects of Brecht's unique Epic Theatre movement, the result can be vibrant theatre. Yet the declamatory polemic-style monologues, extremely presentational staging techniques, and elicitation of intellectual rather than emotional responses provide a dramaturgic vernacular that modern audiences sometimes find difficult to fathom. Director Jeffrey Wienckowski's audacious take on this near-three-hour opus, transporting the action from Europe's 17th century Thirty Years War to the current Iraq conflicts, includes many compelling moments, but the overall effort feels unfocused.
The socialistic-inclined Brecht despised capitalism, and this hard-hitting play is as much an indictment of placing materialistic concerns over humanitarianism as it is an antiwar parable. Wienckowski wants us to reflect on the widespread outrage over the Iraq War, which many consider a war strictly for profit. The earthy Mother Courage (Lee Anne Moore) pushes her wagon of food and supplies behind the battle lines, eking out a living for her three children: Eilif (David DeLeon), Swiss Cheese (Colin Willkie), and Kattrin (Erin McBride Africa). During this seemingly endless battle, Mother Courage remains steadfast in selling her wares despite the dangers; she wants the war to continue so she can maintain her livelihood.
The theme of eternal war and its intrinsic madness supercedes any particular war, yet some of Wienckowski's choices—jungle camouflage fatigues and a cracked image of Sadaam Hussein amid concrete rubble—provide the intended goose pimples. Unfortunately the inclusion of heavy-handed burlesque shtick—the Marx Brothers meet Apocalypse Now—is a jarring directorial misstep. Wienckowski also errs in allowing the scenes of frantic overlapping action to move beyond a "war is crazy" effect into pure confusion. The use of bizarre masks for some characters is appropriately eerie, and M. Fusion's sound effects add to the chilling ambience. The ensemble is generally solid, with best results coming from the fiery Moore as the morally ambivalent titular character, Pete Pano as an opportunistic chaplain, and Africa as the mute but resourceful daughter. This admirable but imperfect production rates an A for ambition and a C for level of coherency.
"Mother Courage," presented by S.O.B. Theatre Company at Theatre/Theater, 6425 Hollywood Blvd., 4th Floor, Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. Jan. 14-Feb. 5. $10-15. (323) 465-3136.