Off the Wall stages a fierce “Mother Courage”

By - Mar 26th, 2011 12:20 pm
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Marilyn White is Mother Courage at Off the Wall Theatre. Photo courtesy OTW.

The thesis of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, which Off the Wall Theatre opened Friday, holds that “war is the continuation of business by other means.” The 1939 masterpiece of anti-war theater resonates today. The hundreds of cruise missiles recently fired at Libyan military installations cost $539,000 each. Brecht set the play in 17th-century Poland during the Thirty Years’ War. An intrepid traveling saleswoman, known as Mother Courage, sets off to make her fortune on the misfortune of war. With her wagon full of military odds and ends, she and her children follow the invading Swedish army. One by one her children fall victim to the war. Yet, she perseveres to make another sale.

Director Dale Gutzman realizes Brecht’s vision on OTW’s minute stage in powerful fashion. Brechtian “Epic Theatre” — the playwright’s concept of narration, minimal sets and song to convey a message — fits Gutzman’s style.

The stage is a scorched battlefield. A few bits of barbed wire coil, a bare branch and torn bits of newspapers adorn the set. You enter to projected black-and-white footage of carnage from World Wars I and II. New songs and music by Jack Forbes Wilson underscore and reflect on the play’s action.  The keyboard and wind instruments add color, emotion and mood to an already a strong message. Wilson’s music is an updated homage to Brecht’s sometime creative partner, Kurt Weil.

A cast of 18 fills two dozen roles. Marilyn White, as Mother Courage stands out with a credible and strong performance.  Her conflicting roles of mother and war profiteer often defer to the ultimate reality of war – it pays the bills. David Flores plays the chaplain whose pragmatic piety and morality are as fickle as the winds of war. White and Flores have the majority of the musical numbers and they deliver them with conviction.

The rest of cast support the piece effectively. Mark Hagen plays the recruiter among other characters. It’s nice to see him in a serious play for a change. Mother Courage’s sons, Swiss Cheese (Jeremy Welter) and Eilif (Christopher Elst) both do justice to their roles. Liz Mistele as the mute daughter, Kattrin, delivers a silent yet expressive character who, ironically, turns out to be the heroine in a very Brechtian turn.

The power of Mother Courage buttressed by Gutzman’s production and his cast offer a compelling evening of theatre. It’s not uplifting; it’s jarring and thought-provoking. To that end, there is no curtain call. I left thinking of this line: “When we die, we’ll have peace…unless the war goes on in hell.”

Mother Courage runs through April 3 at Off the Wall, 127 E. Wells St. For tickets, show schedule and further information, call 414 327-3552 or visit the OTW website.

Categories: A/C Feature 2, Theater

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