An epic musical about War, Family, and Survival

March/April 2011

Except of course for a few masterpieces by Euripides, Bertolt Brecht's epic musical Mother Courage is considered to be the greatest anti-war play ever written. Performed in many translations all over the world, the show has achieved legendary statue, not only because of its thesis of "War is Good for Business," but also because of the theatrical demands involved in any production.

For that reason, Dale Gutzman Artistic Director of Off the Wall Theatre and actress Marilyn White worked on their production of Mother Courage for more than two years. Gutzman has been working on the play off and on for almost a decade, reading as many available translations as possible, studying Brecht's world famous "Model Book" on how the production is to be staged, and absorbing modern criticism on what to do with the show today in our changing world. In 2009, he started to work on his own translation, combining and trimming the best of what was available. Then he and Marilyn White, his choice for one of the most demanding roles in all of theatre, flew to London to see a production at the National Theatre of Great Britain. He was even more convinced that this epic piece of theatrical wonder could and should be staged at his very small intimate Off The Wall Theatre. Gutzman is no stranger to Brecht's "Theatre of Alienation," an attempt to make audiences think about the message of a play as well as getting them to feel the impact of the play's emotions. His production of "Threepenny Opera" a few years ago was highly praised.

But for this musical, he wanted new music. Most productions of Mother Courage today use original songs with various versions of Brecht's lyrics. Gutzman asked his good friend and local musical genius Jack Forbes Wilson if he would be willing to write the twelve songs required for the show. Mr. Wilson first came to Milwaukee in the 1980s to work with Dale when he was playwright in residence at the then Milwaukee Performing Arts Center. So Jack and Dale set to work together once again, shaping and re-shaping songs to fit the many characters in the show. The musical numbers break out of the story and have a "Berlin Music Hall" quality.

The most important scenic element of Mother Courage is the wagon which she and her family drag through the never ending war, selling goods to survive. At times, the desperate woman sacrifices her family to salvage her wagon. Off The Wall's creative set designer David Roper and Randy White set about to create a wagon that would work on the tiny Off The Wall stage. Building it in a vacant garage, the wagon was shipped to the theatre in pieces and then re-assembled on the stage.

Along with the wagon, Gutzman commissioned creative local visual artist Paul Peck to create a war environment for the show which included giant murals, fiber-glass figures, and barbed wire. Peck was a student of Gutzman"s years ago when he taught at University School Milwaukee, and now works visually around the world with many of the same themes that his former teacher explores with theatre.

A cast of eighteen dedicated and versatile actors rounded out the production. Featured among the talented ensemble were the wonderful David Flores as the hypocritical Chaplain, Bob Hirschi as the corrupt Cook, Liz Mistele as Kattrin, Courage's mute daughter, and Christopher Elst and Jeremy Welter as her two sons. Barb Zafros play Yvette the prostitute and camp follower. Also in the cast were Lawrence Lukasavage, Mary Henricksen, Marcee Doherty, Mark Ninneman, Sandy Lewis, Mark Hagen, Aaron Schricker, Jacob Fons, Michael Davis, Joey Skattebo and David Roper.

For a powerful play about the tragedies of war, the show is surprisingly funny in places. This is due to Brecht's "Total Theatre" concept. The very theatricality of the play and the rich eccentric characters make for some hilariously funny moments. And then of course there Brecht's serious "Lessons," as if not more potent today than ever before. This show was a once in a lifetime experience in our intimate theatre.

There was no business like war business in Off The Wall Theatre's production of Bertolt Brecht's masterpiece, Mother Courage!