A Play on War
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 17, 2010
A Play on War—a new theatrical collaboration between Theater Mitu and the National Asian American Theatre Company—mashes up Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children with a variety of divergent sources and ideas, everything from The Sound of Music to Peking Opera to some sort of apocalyptic sci-fi universe where everybody moves about on kiddie bicycles. Some of what's here is distracting and some is just weird; but much of this play, written by Jenny Connell, is compelling and arresting; and the on-stage talents—eight Asian American actors, led by the always formidable Mia Katigbak in the Mother Courage role, and two excellent musicians—are doing terrific work. I left with new insights about Brecht's original and impressed by Mitu/NAATCO's unwavering commitment to inventive and socially conscious theatre.
The basic story of Mother Courage remains the same in A Play on War: during a relentless and apparently pointless war (between sides referred to always in terms of "us" and "them"), Mother Courage supports herself and her children as a freelance privateer, selling materiel and other necessities from a cart that she and her brood move from one embattled town to another. Mother Courage has two sons and one daughter, and the arc of the play depicts how one by one she loses them as they fall prey to soldiers in different ways. Her key attributes—devotion to her children and a tenacious will to survive at any cost—constantly come into conflict and contribute to her tragedy. In Brecht, Mother Courage is a virulent capitalist, and it is very specifically her passion for turning a profit that leads her to neglect her maternal duties. Here, the economic aspect is downplayed; as the title suggests, war is the main villain here, and this has the effect of diminishing Mother Courage's indomitable character somewhat, while at the same time providing an interesting point of contrast from which to compare this work with Brecht's original.
Katigbak is as perfect for this role as I knew she would be: her Mother Courage is an invincible exemplar of the place where human fortitude and human self-interest meet and sometimes clash. Nathan Elam and Jon Norman Schneider play her two sons, and both balance the antic qualities of these characters with their sad but matter-of-fact destinies. Nikki Calonge is impressive as the daughter, a mute girl named Birdie whose longing for companionship from someone other than her mother is palpable. Orville Mendoza is excellent in several roles, notably an army cook who befriends Mother Courage and whose ultimate wooing of that lady is the catalyst for the play's climactic events. Marcus Ho similarly takes multiple parts, and in his main role as an army chaplain he is very effective. Rounding out the ensemble are Bushra Laskar, smart, savvy and sympathetic as a whore/camp follower whose fortunes rise and fall, and Brian Hirono as various representatives of "our" and "their" army. Composer Adam Cochran and musician Barrie McClain provide live accompaniment to the songs and scenes.
Director Ruben Polendo, who also conceived A Play on War (and is the artistic director of Theater Mitu), provides a staging that's probably too loaded down with ideas for its own good. There's an effort to link elements of the play to familiar aspects of the movie The Sound of Music (such as, for example, having the musicians play "So Long, Farewell" when a child dies); this ultimately didn't seem to add anything valuable to the proceedings. The set, dominated by a simple realization of Mother Courage's cart, is probably more spare than it should be, while the costumes, designed by Candida K. Nichols, are very distracting. Mother Courage and her son Suez Cheese wear layers of robes that constantly get in each actor's way; the soldiers' costumes consist of underpants embellished with faux armor, boots, etc. The idea, I think, is to remind us of the childishness of war, but once that notion is conveyed (almost instantly) the skimpy costumes just feel embarrassing.
Polendo uses the space well: he's transformed the Connelly Theatre so that the audience and stage areas are reversed, allowing for some excellent multi-level effects and an intimacy, with us looking down on the actors, that wouldn't be achieved with a normal proscenium staging. And his work with the actors, which includes athletic and often exciting movement sequences, is superlative.
A Play on War is not wholly successful, but for its invention and intelligence it is deserving of praise and well worth your time. The excellent talents on display here, and the constant challenges to what we think we know about Brecht's original piece and about what an anti-war performance might look and feel like, make this show exhilarating and intriguing even when its individual components don't quite work.