Now running in a fine production by the Quintessence Theatre Group, Mother Courage And Her Children by Bertolt Brecht is one of the most celebrated plays of the 20th century. Written in exile, it stakes out his Marxist opposition to war as "a continuation of business by other means."
The setting is the Thirty Years War and Mother Courage is nearly always on stage with her wooden cart, selling goods to soldiers. Janis Dardaris plays the role in a way Brecht himself would have admired. Dardaris makes no attempt to endear: She wants you to know Mother's character, that of a practical, small-time profiteer who benefits from war.
Act 1 runs for two hours, and as you see how war affects characters differently, the show often feels like a cross between cabaret and musical comedy. Some scenes almost stand alone as comedy bits. We are further kept off-balance with Brecht's witty song interludes, fleshed out with an original musical score by Michael Friedman.
Along with direct audience address, these are tools in Brecht's "audience alienation" method. Traditional drama seeks emotional engagement and catharsis - but Brecht argues that these things reduce spectators to passivity. Rather, he said, a play needs to distance the audience so it can think independently. Yet in Mother Courage this almost clinical indifference alters in the shorter second act, with a finale so stunningly dramatic it leaves you in tears.
The Quintessence set keeps pace with the daring of the script. Behind the performance area, white sheets are draped across columns where we read of the sites of battles. Behind these sheets the war rages, dimly present in light, shadow, and muffled sound.
Against that background, some characters are essentially comic. Camp follower Yvette (Leah Gabriel) and hanger-on Chaplain (Gregory Isaac) have cameo moments. Lecherous Cook (Forrest McClendon) sings "The Song of the Great Souls of the Earth" - a satirical number about great people doomed by their virtue.