By Summer Lukasiewicz
In the midst of public debates over Confederate statues and a downward spiral of the tone of political discourse, on the day after the 2018 midterm elections, where Americans watched maps turning blue and red, wondering if change would come to their corner of the country or status quo would be maintained, The Nebraska Repertory Theatre transported their audience back to the American Civil War.
Beautiful period costumes designed by Heather Striebel and a minimal, clear scenic design by Brenda Davis immediately make the setting clear. The Union and Confederate soldiers are portrayed by the same capable actors, but the costumes and the character work make that transition seamless when the Rebels arrive on the scene.
The play opens with actor/musicians around a campfire: piccolo, guitar, fiddle, trumpet, and banjo open the show and set the scene.
A NOTE HERE: MOTHER COURAGE is NOT a musical. It is a play with music. This seems a subtle difference, but it is important to note. Though the show is mixed with music throughout, it does not FEEL like a musical. The audience was uncertain as to whether they should clap after songs because it does not FEEL like a musical. **I leaned toward NOT clapping after, and director Andy Park staged clear, immediate transitions back into the text on most songs that make this the clearer choice. The actors flowed from text to song and back easily in most of the scenes. (If you feel the urge to clap, however, you should! The actors won’t mind.)
Brecht is known for stripping away the trappings of theatre and showing the audience the bare bones, so having the musicians on the stage was a nice homage to Bertolt’s tastes.
In his director’s note, Park explains the history of canteen women, vivandieres, of the Civil War, but regardless of the intentions of Courage when she started out following the Union regiments selling goods from her cart, she becomes a war profiteer, switching sides when it suits her purpose, her own life and pocketbook outweighing any ideals over which the war is being fought.
The cast is made up of professional actors and UNL acting students, all of whom have done excellent work developing their characters and building relationships, filling every moment. Sanford Meisner points out that “acting is doing”, and these hard working actors use everything at their disposal to listen and do what needs to be done in each moment. Courage, played by Moira Mangiameli, is, of course, the glue binding the scenes together. The entire cast is very strong, and I was particularly charmed by the work of Don Richard as Cookie, who also plays the piccolo when not rambling through and making an impression. Emily Raine Blythe as Kattrin, the daughter of Courage who is mute, speaks volumes without speaking a word, particularly near the end of the play.
In the second act, we meet a family of now-freed slaves who face horrifying circumstances that lead us to wonder whether they are victors of victims of “freedom”. All UNL students, these actors are a vital addition to the story in a scene that begins with seriously powerful vocals from Karen Richards, who, with her back to the audience, is able to communicate the deep hurt and worry and faith and fear of the farmer’s wife she portrays and all of the former slaves she represents in that moment.
Brecht is a challenging playwright to take on, which may be why his works are often mounted in academic theatre, and the play takes on a challenging question: What do we lose in war? The answers go far beyond how many people die.
What is the true cost of war?
For the country?
What is the cost of disunity?
Everyone loses SOMETHING.
Is it worth the cost?
And: What is the cost of peace?
These are timely questions to be asking. (Perhaps they are always timely questions to ask.)
Not for children due to language and some graphic moments. MOTHER COURAGE runs through November 18th, with NO Saturday performances. Individual Tickets: $30 | Student/OLLI: $15
Summer Lukasiewicz is an actor, director, writer, educator, the Executive Director of Flatwater Shakespeare Company, and a lover of well-told stories.