‘Mother Courage’ is an epic take on war’s toll

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Marilyn White in the titular role in Off the Wall Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s classic “Mother Courage.”

Marilyn White in the titular role in Off the Wall Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s classic “Mother Courage.” – Photo: Courtesy

Throughout history, war has always been good for business.

But what happens when the cost of doing business becomes too dear? That question drives the narrative in Off the Wall Theatre’s upcoming production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” which opens March 24.

“Mother Courage,” considered by some to be the 20th century’s greatest play and one of history’s greatest anti-war plays, is a primary example of what Brecht and his contemporaries called “epic theater,” a school that emerged in Germany after World War I. Epic theater favors rational thought over dramatic illusion, contains loosely connected scenes between which the actors directly address the audience, and promotes an emotional distancing between actor and character and character and audience to stimulate intellectual, rather than emotional responses.

The concepts appealed to OTW artistic director Dale Gutzman on a variety of levels, leading him to create his own translation of the work. He also tapped Milwaukee actor/musician Jack Forbes Wilson to write and perform new music for the production, building on Brecht’s original ideas with a striking and sometimes more contemporary approach.

“I would not be so boastful to suggest that we take Brecht’s ‘epic theater’ further in our production,” Gutzman says. “But I will say that we use some theatrical images and devices to put the story on an epic scale to which the audience will better respond.”

Brecht wrote his play in furious response to the Nazi’s 1939 invasion of Poland, but set the action during The Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648) to promote the universality of his anti-war themes. Gutzman’s production embodies the concept of all wars and the enterprise that develops around war. But that enterprise comes with a heavy toll: Despite being a savvy businesswomen dealing goods from her cart around battlefields, Mother Courage (played by Marilyn White) makes great sacrifices, including losing her children.

“I didn’t want to set the play in a certain period, because the audience might see it merely as historical commentary. Our audiences hopefully will see themselves and their world in this production,” Gutzman says.

That approach also led to the involvement of Wilson, most recently seen in the title role of the Milwaukee Rep’s production of “Liberace!” Brecht’s original music, while hauntingly appropriate, has never become as popular as that of “The Threepenny Opera,” Gutzman explains. Thus, the score has become as malleable over time as the production design, costumes and casting – it’s frequently altered to suit the particular time period or production.

“The music serves an important function in the show,” Gutzman says. “It takes the action outside of the story to comment on it, rather like Sondheim does with “Company.” Using a tremendously gifted local composer links the music to the audience in another direct way.”

Gutzman’s lyrics, based on Brecht’s original work, help to create a German “music hall” feel for much of the music, Wilson says. But it wasn’t always an easy musical environment in which to work.

“(Gutzman) was very true to Brecht’s rhymes and rhythms with his translation, and those words impart a distinctive feel to the music,” Wilson says. “At first glance, Brecht’s rhyme schemes feel quirky, if not downright awkward. They threw some interesting curves into the songs, which would not be there if I were writing the lyrics myself. But I really like the way they turned out.”

Given OTW’s small space, Wilson has limited his “orchestra” to a piano and versatile wind player. The duo will share the space with the play’s most visible element – the wagon in which Mother Courage and her children live and from which she conducts her business. Created by carpenter Randy White, husband of Marilyn White, the wagon is one of theater’s best-known props, suitably dominating OTW’s small space.

“Because our stage is so small, the wagon becomes a central piece to each and every scene, even transforming itself into a tent or a canteen,” Gutzman says. “The wagon is Courage’s home and her life. It is her blood.”

OTW’s artistic team hopes the narrative, music and visuals will drive home the play’s anti-war message to the point of involving the audience in the production.

“The audience will be singing along on at least one song, of which Dale and I think Brecht would have approved,” Wilson says. “But not to worry – no one in the audience will be required to push the cart around the stage.”

Brecht’s play also has an interesting gay angle that is seldom discussed but is evident in some productions in which the character of the Swedish commander is portrayed as gay, according to Gutzman.

“He loves his soldier boys as ‘hunks of meat’ and promises one of them a gold bracelet,” Gutzman says. “He runs his hands over his gladiators’ bare chests and brazenly flirts with them.”

The purpose of the dramatic foreplay is to show how people can be objectified and violated as if they were animals by having their muscles felt and talked about in ways that could be considered homoerotic, Guzman explains.

“It’s a man’s world where men love men and violence, which makes the position of Mother Courage as a woman all the more difficult,” Gutzman says. “It was rather brave of Brecht to use a gay character in this light.”

Off the Wall Theatre’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” runs March 24 - April 3 at 127 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Call 414-327-3552 or go to www.offthewalltheatre.com.

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