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A Play on War

Ruben Polendo and Jenny Connell's riff on Mother Courage and Her Children is stylistically daring, but doesn't quite cohere.

Mia Katigbak (standing) with Nathan Elam,
Jon Norman Schneider, and Brian Hirono
in A Play on War
(© William P. Steele)
Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children meets Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music in A Play on War, now receiving its world premiere at the Connelly Theater courtesy of the National Asian American Theatre Company and Theater Mitu. Conceived and directed by Ruben Polendo with text by Jenny Connell, the piece is stylistically daring, but doesn't quite cohere.

A Play on War is mostly a riff on Brecht's play, and tells the story of Mama C (Mia Katigbak) and her three children, Four Eyes (Nathan Elam), Suez Cheese (Jon Norman Schneider), and Birdie (Nikki Calonge). However, rather than presenting a straightforward narrative, it instead focuses on Mama C's fortune-telling abilities, as she looks into the future to see the deadly fates of her children who are doomed to die in the war. This is an intriguing concept, and presents a fresh look at the Mother Courage story.

The incorporation of snippets from the film version of The Sound of Music, which Mama C watches on a small television, is more of a puzzler. The use of song fragments (with some revised lyrics) of some of the famous R&H tunes is also largely ineffective, with the exception of a chilling instrumental refrain of "So long, farewell" which accompanies the death of each of Mama C's children. In addition, too many of Polendo's directorial touches seem forced and unsatisfying. This is particularly true of his use of what press notes term "Arabic clowning" techniques which is probably meant as Polendo's answer to Brecht's alienation effect, but is more stultifying than anything else.

Katigbak has an earthy groundedness appropriate for her role, and would probably be quite good in a more traditional staging of Mother Courage. As it is, she sometimes seems to struggle with the over-the-top farcical style that Polendo has imposed on the proceedings. Orville Mendoza is memorable as Cookie and is the only cast member with a strong singing voice, which he puts to good use in one of Adam Cochran's original compositions. The rest of the cast is more uneven, although whether that's because of Polendo's direction or their own inabilities as actors is uncertain.

Another curious aspect of the production is the costuming by Candida K. Nichols, which is all-white, with several pieces seeming like they could have been purchased at a fetish shop. The idea seems to be to garb a number of the characters in outfits that are infantilizing, although the stylized diaper bottoms on some of the men -- combined with exposed flesh -- also seem to be oddly sexualizing. Polendo's blocking includes having some of the men grab their crotches at certain moments, which adds to this effect. But while the clothing is eye-catching, like many other aspects of the production, it isn't quite clear how it relates to the story of Mama C and her three children.


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