While our current mayoral administration has curbed the enterprise of street vendors and coffee carts, the Jean Cocteau Repertory provides an instructive parallel. In Mother Courage, the titular character, unfettered by civic laws, drags her goods-laden cart from nation to nation while the 17th-century Thirty Years War rages around her. In fact, she acquired her sobriquet when she drove 50 loaves of bread through the bombardment at Riga (she was afraid they’d go moldy before she could sell). Can the corner hot dog guy do that?
Of course, when Brecht wrote the piece in 1940, he had more serious analogies in mind. He intended to critique those who profit from war and to show “that war, which is a continuation of business by other means, makes human virtues fatal even to their possessors.” The Jean Cocteau revival doesn’t stress such weighty considerations. Occasionally a line will resonate, such as “Victory and defeat for the great leaders, don’t always mean victory and defeat for the common people.” But for the most part, the play marches efficiently on, not pausing to make too many comparisons with the present.
This production debuts Marc Blitzstein’s translation, completed in 1957 and never performed. Though Blitzstein provides a fairly brisk rhythm, his use of slang, which must once have sounded vigorous and cutting edge, now sounds almost quaint—full of “ain’t”s and dropped G’s and rhymes such as “Springtime has come/Wake up, ya bum.” Happily, there’s nothing quaint about Lorinda Lisitza’s strong rendition of Mother Courage. With fierce eyes blazing in a wan face and a voice that oscillates between a bark and a whine, she captures both the bravery and cravenness of her role.