“Mother Courage and Her Children” Produced By Seattle Shakespeare

In war there are no true winners. Both sides suffer, and although there’s usually a victor, the win comes with a heavy price. So it is in “Mother Courage and Her Children” set in the 17th C. Mother Courage is a hard-nosed purveyor of goods, a canteen woman who sells foods and drinks to the army, seeking her profit, as the Thirty Years’ War drags on.

This is Bertolt Brecht’s magnum opus anti-war play. Philosophically he was opposed to the vitriol of the rising Nazi party in his native Germany, and was forced into exile when Hitler seized power in 1933. He wrote this play (with help from Margarete Steffin) in 1939 in Sweden before the German troops got to Scandinavia. From there he fled to the United States. After the war, his Marxist views brought an invitation from the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. He returned to Europe the next day.

The powerful antiwar message in “Mother Courage…” is as pertinent for modern audiences as it was years ago. So too is its equally powerful reminder of the danger of religious extremism. (The Thirty Years’ War was, after all, a conflict of Protestants against Catholics.)


Jeanne Paulsen and Chesa Greene in Mother Courage and Her Children. Photo by John Ulman

Seattle Shakespeare plays it on a bare stage dominated by Mother Courage’s wagon, which contains her goods and serves as home for her and her three children. They’ve lost their cart animals so it’s the two sons or the daughter or mother who slowly and laboriously pull the wagon behind the lines where indomitable Mama makes her sales and tries to put away her profits. There’s money to be made in wartime.

Jeanne Paulsen as Mother Courage creates a steely, no nonsense powerhouse of a character. Her Mother Courage drives a hard bargain. It matters not to whom she sells. What matters is survival and profit. No one is allowed to get in her way, and woe to any of her children who dare to cross her. Yet Paulsen’s grief when they come to harm is heartbreaking. Hers is a remarkable performance.

Director Jeff Steitzer deserves much praise for the entire production. The spare stage works wonderfully, especially with the creative sound and lighting. The supporting cast members reinforce one another in expert fashion. It’s almost unfair to single out any one for special mention, but Chesa Greene as Mother Courage’s daughter is absolutely remarkable. She plays a mute, and manages with facial expressions, body movement, and guttural sounds to articulate a vast mix of emotions.

What this play says about war and human nature is as pertinent today as it was 400 years ago. You will not leave the theatre unmoved.

Through Nov. 22 at The Center Theatre in the Armory, Seattle Center, (206 733-8222 or www.seattleshapespeare.com).



Leave a Reply