'Mother Courage' is epic masterpiece of struggle, survival

The Nebraska Repertory Theatre presents Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage" Nov. 7-18 in the Temple Building.
The Nebraska Repertory Theatre presents Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage" Nov. 7-18 in the Temple Building.

'Mother Courage' is epic masterpiece of struggle, survival

calendar icon09 Nov 2018    user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen

Lincoln, Neb.--The Nebraska Repertory Theatre presents the epic masterpiece of struggle and survival, “Mother Courage,” by Bertolt Brecht.

Performances are Nov. 7-18 in the Temple Building. For tickets and showtimes, visit http://nebraskarep.org/. “Mother Courage” contains adult content and themes.

In this new adaptation of the classic play, the drama unfolds during the height of the American Civil War. While Mother Courage profits from the spoils of war, she faces the ultimate sacrifice.

“Mother Courage is about a woman who has seen it all and made her life revolve around her cart of goods that she sells to the soldiers,” said Cameron Currie, a junior theatre performance major from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who plays a Young Soldier and other roles in the play. “She is hardy and wise, yet susceptible to love and compassion, not only for her children, but for others as well.”

Andy Park, artistic director of the Nebraska Repertory Theatre and the director, said, “’Mother Courage’ is widely considered to be the greatest play of the 20th century, and it’s really an anti-war piece. Originally it was set against the Thirty Years’ War, which was a really big war in Europe. We decided that we were going to move our ‘Mother Courage’ to the American Civil War because it, too, is one of those wars that has had lasting consequences.”

Park said Brecht wanted people to intellectualize when they were watching a show.

“He wasn’t as interested in people getting all wrapped up in the narrative and crying along with the protagonist, even though, much to his dismay, that would often happen during his shows, even though he tried to control that,” Park said. “He created Mother Courage, who just makes terrible decisions, and her decisions have huge consequences. And you’re like, ‘NO! Why would you do that?’ And then at the end you still feel really bad for her. You almost get the feeling that it doesn’t matter what decision she makes, she’s going to be punished for it.”

Currie said the audience should expect a gritty story.

“People should know this is a Brecht show, and he does bring a specific style to his work, so they should be prepared to see that style in action and realize it might be a little different from what they are used to,” Currie said.

But Park said the play is also not entirely serious.

“I think when people hear ‘Mother Courage,” they think, ‘Oh my! That must be really serious and a tragedy,’” he said. “Certainly there is a heaviness in places. But the other thing is this show is incredibly funny, and the music is catchy and fun. One of the things Brecht does is he’ll set up this horrible situation where something really bad is happening, but then the characters around it are like The Three Stooges or something. They’re making all these stupid decisions, and you’re just laughing at them, but then you’re saying why am I laughing? This is terrible! But that’s all part of his device of making you think about it. I think people are going to come and be surprised at how entertaining it is.”

The Rep’s “Mother Courage” features music by Scott Lamps; book and lyrics by Park; and a translation by Professor of Theatre William Grange. The music director is Tobi Mattingly.

“The thing about Brecht is he never gives you music unless it’s one of his collaborations with Kurt Weill like ‘The Threepenny Opera,’” Park said. “So here you are with these translated lyrics that have no music. We decided early on that we were going to honor Brecht’s placements for the songs, but we were going to work on songs that helped tie in our period and help tell the story we were trying to tell, so that’s why we have a composer, and I worked on new lyrics, and then Tobi is here for music direction.”

Mattingly said the music plays an important role in the production, though it’s considered more of a play with music rather than a musical.

“A lot of times in a more traditionally structured musical, the music becomes a substitute for character development because it gets us to emotional content in a shortcut manner,” she said. “That being said, there are easily as many musical numbers in this as many musicals. There’s a heavy musical content, and Scott has written music that follows a lot of musical conventions, in terms of different characters and different ideas having musical themes and statements that then come back throughout the piece in different ways. That’s the kind of thing that the layperson may not even notice, but it works on you on a subconscious level.”

Lamps said the fact that “Mother Courage” is a full-fledged play was both challenging and freeing for him as a composer.

“It’s a fully shaped play even before we started adding lyrics or adding music,” he said. “It presented challenges, but was also very freeing because a lot of the heavy lifting doesn’t have to be done by the music or the lyrics. That allowed us to be more detailed, and the music didn’t need to do fundamental character development. We were able to really develop the war as its own character and give it its own musical elements because the war plays such a big part of this show, even though it doesn’t have any lines and it doesn’t crack any jokes.”

Park said the actors will also be playing the music.

“One of the craziest things we decided to do that has posed all kinds of challenges is we thought it would be a good idea if actors also played the music, so we have actors playing banjo, trumpet, violin, guitar, mandolin, piccolo and pennywhistle,” he said. “And then we have three pit musicians as well. There are a total of, I think, 45 music cues, 18 major musical moments and other incidentals or scene changes.”

That created a busier rehearsal schedule.

“Typically for any one musical number, you would have one or maybe two rehearsals,” Mattingly said. “So if it’s a soloist over the ensemble, you have one for the soloist, and one rehearsal for the ensemble. Now, we have to add one more round of rehearsal for each song for those musicians to play because we can’t wait until tech to put that together. And they have to memorize some of that music, too. But they’ve been doing a really great job.”

Currie said that memorization of music was his challenge.

“The challenges for me would be memorization of all the music complexities that we have,” he said. “It may seem simple during show production, but it’s quite complex and has a lot of moving gears during every single piece we sing and play.”

Hannah Ramsgard, a senior theatre major from Omaha, plays Yvette, as well as the violin.

“Yvette is a persevering woman who tries endlessly to better life,” she said. “I am playing the fiddle in the show. It’s a little nerve-wracking because it’s been a while since I’ve played for anything officially, but I’m so excited and thrilled to have the opportunity to learn from such wonderful musicians, especially our music director Tobi Mattingly.”

Jeremy Blomstedt (B.A. 2017) plays the Recruiting Officer and other characters.

“It’s not uncommon for an actor in a Brecht play to have multiple parts to play, both large and small,” he said. “As a character actor, it’s great fun challenging myself to find new energies, new voices, new ways to move through the space, and new interaction with my castmates.”

Blomstedt also appreciates the opportunity to work with the professional actors in “Mother Courage.”

“The Equity actors in the show are simply outstanding human beings—kind, generous, patient. In other words, everything an all-grown-up kid from Palisade, Nebraska, could hope for in a compatriot and co-worker,” he said. “I know that I learn more every time I work with them, and that they make me a better performer.”

Park has also connected to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s German department. Their students will attend the performance and write a one-page review of the performance in German. In addition, Associate Professor of German Christina Brantner’s German Romanticism class will also use the play in their class.

“We are looking at the ‘consequences’ of apolitical romantics like Eichendorff, and we are in the midst of reading Georg Büchner, who was a revolutionary democrat in the 1830s,” Brantner said. “We have read his novella ‘Lenz,’ and are tackling his drama ‘Danton’s Death,’ which is based on sources inside the French Revolution of 1789. Both of these deal with historic material, just like Brecht used for his drama as well. I am excited that my students can experience a play on stage that shares a (more modern) approach of using historical sources. Hopefully the students can see and analyze how much closer Büchner stayed to his source (and why), and how much more loosey goosey Brecht was in his approach, yet both achieved, like with any German play, a great ‘education’ of their audiences according to the authors’ fervent beliefs.”
Park said these connections are important to the Rep.

“There is nothing that is more fun than when you’re making theatre, and you get a chance to connect, especially in this amazing environment that we have at Nebraska,” he said. “Someone coming off the street, they’re going to come and they’re going to love it, but they won’t love it like somebody that loves Brecht and understands German theatre and how it all fits together, so it’s going to be exciting.”

Brantner is happy to have this opportunity for her students.

“I think it’s fabulous if a literature class gets the opportunity to have a play taken out of our lonely heads onto a lively stage where we can share the view and discuss the vivification,” she said. “And to get actors and other members of the team to join in on such a discussion in class, answer questions about their role, about the meaning of the play in our time, the relevance it still holds—all that is a dream come true.”

Park is eager for audiences to see the Rep’s “Mother Courage.”

“This is, by far, the most ambitious project that the Nebraska Rep has taken on, from what I understand, in many years,” he said. “This is not a unit set. We have scenery that is flying in and out. We have a humongous cast. I mean, it’s the Civil War. We have special effects. It’s going to be a really strong show. It is seriously ambitious, and I think we’re going to pull it off.”