There's an emblematic moment midway through Frank Theatre's excellent staging of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, when the titular mom (Annie Enneking) learns that one of her sons has been slain. Enneking steps into the spotlight, contorts her features, and emits a scream of exaggerated anguish—in total silence. Mother Courage's pain, like everything else in this show, exists at arm's length, stylized, and dissected for the audience's analysis.
Brecht's 1939 play was a major component in his project of throttling western drama to within an inch of its life, then granting it new breath after it promised to live up to the challenges of its age. Writing on the eve of World War II, he set his play amid the 17th-century's Thirty Years' War. And he provides elements that tear to tatters any notion of war's grandeur (or even necessity): greed, carnage, betrayal, rape, venality, and, most crucially, hypocrisy.
The story is relatively straight-ahead: Mother Courage embarks on a long European tour with her ramshackle wagon and store of wares, striving to make her living amid a continent ripping itself apart. She drags along her three children, Eilif (John Riedlinger), Swiss Cheese (Eric Sharp), and the mute Kattrin (Heather Bunch). Along the way she suffers setbacks and enjoys success. And all of her children die. Cue up a final cynical tune about the ineluctable inequities of life.
One need not worry about spoiling the suspense in this show: Brecht wrote it in the form of a dozen vignettes that begin with a projected banner that informs the audience what is about to happen. It's a tactic designed to distance the audience from oversympathizing with the characters, or embracing suspension of disbelief as an anodyne to the realities on display. Tolstoy asked: Do individual great men drive history, or great communal forces? Screw that, Mother Courage might have replied. Is that a half-sandwich sitting on that reeking pile of garbage?
By now it must be clear that this is a difficult work to pull off, and Wendy Knox's direction is perfectly suited to the task. I've often found that her go-for-the-gut style produces a fascinatingly paradoxical sense of brainy distance. And this play is right in her wheelhouse. Knox's foot soldier in this campaign is Enneking, who makes almost no false steps as she stalks around the stage dispensing wisecracks, bickering, bartering, and convincingly embracing the cracked logic of the battlefield.
Grant Richey's Chaplain is another standout. He's in love with Mother Courage, and helps drag her cart through the muck of existence while trying to cling to the shreds of his prissy dignity. Brecht makes the Chaplain carry all kinds of rhetorical weight (which Richey lifts with apparent ease). At one point he extols the virtues of war; at another he vividly recounts Christ's crucifixion as a metaphor for the crushing effect of bellicose empires on the fortunes of ordinary people. (This was the story's original point, if I'm not mistaken.)
The devil gets his due in the musical accompaniment, led by Michael Croswell, which mixes keyboards, percussion, and horns into a sort of satanic cabaret. And while some lyrics get lost in the mix, the cast generally pulls it off. Polish, in any case, isn't the point here. And when Enneking hisses and roars through Mother Courage's statement of purpose ("Song of Great Capitulation"), the heart fairly soars, then crashes, then tries to get up again.
This is a brutal, profane piece ("You're all trouser shitters!" a soldier shouts at one point), a sordid match for its subject—the murderous spree of history, in which war has rarely done much to improve the life of the average person. Best make a buck if you can, Mother Courage concludes, even though it destroys her. After all, war, as Brecht once formulated, is business as usual conducted by different means. And he'd never even heard of the Carlyle Group.