“Mother Courage” triumphs with substance and spectacle

After 19 years of teaching and directing, Theater Artist-in-Residence Dona Werner Freeman ’80 is in the process of giving the St. Olaf community one last marvelous gift of a production. “Mother Courage and Her Children,” directed by Freeman, opened this past weekend and continues this upcoming weekend, Thursday through Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. I highly recommend seeing this show, not only to see an incredible performance, but also to support the final production of a very talented and devoted Theater educator.

“Mother Courage,” written by Bertolt Brecht, revolves around Anna Fierling (Christine Menge ’18), a businesswoman who fiercely pedals her wares during the Thirty Years’ War between Protestant and Catholic powers of Europe. Known as Mother Courage to her customers, she pulls her cart of supplies from regiment to regiment with her three children: Eilif (Josh Horst ’19), Swiss Cheese (Hawken Paul ’20) and Kattrin (Katie Howrey ’19). A cast of peasants, soldiers and officers float past the foursome, but Mother Courage’s most common companions apart from her children are Yvette (Annika Isbell ’19), the Cook (Max McKune ’18) and the Chaplain (Chaz Mayo ’18), all of whom fight just as hard to make a living and survive the wartime. By the end of the episodic show, Mother Courage loses all her children and companions by one route or another to the war, and gains nothing.

Scenic designer and technical director Todd Edwards’ design grabs attention and respect from the moment that the audience steps into Kelsey Theater. He conveys the epic quality of the show wonderfully and offers no room for the performers to hide. The grand centerpiece, a huge grey turntable, is impressively constructed and ruthlessly efficient. With the simple addition of four actors armed with metal bars, the turntable silently rotates to remind the audience of the infinite cycle of war that Brecht sees. In front of the proscenium arches and behind the turntable, Edwards adds large, semi-transparent tarps. The tarps do not add much to the visual aesthetic but work quite well as projection screens. Additionally, the backstage walls are visible behind the action, contributing to Brecht’s famous alienation effect, ensuring that the audience maintains no illusions about the reality of the production. To complete the effect, the pit displays itself off stage left and the actors fearlessly place themselves onstage both before the show and during intermission.

One of the most eye-catching elements of the production was the projection design by Mayo and Aaron Lauby ’19. They began their work on the show during the summer as part of a CURI project, and their design is indeed worth their efforts. Lauby’s transitions provide a historical context while maintaining the show’s temporally ambiguous aesthetic. In a similar vein, Mayo’s music videos provide an engrossing and abstract backdrop to the solo performers, while adding a heightened sense of darkness and foreboding. None of his visuals simply parrot the lyrics of the songs they support, but succeed at providing new and intriguing information without distracting from the onstage action. Though the song beats do not always sync with the videos, the moments when they do seem quite magical.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Joanna McLarnan’s ’17 lighting. Thanks to the Anna K. Bonde Advancement Opportunity, developed for recent Ole Theater graduates, McLarnan is back from her recent graduation. McLarnan delivers a marvelous design to the production; her choice of bold color palettes allows the scenes to read as disturbingly harsh and realistic comic book panels, and her transitions run effortlessly.

Dario Villalobos ’18 lends another beautiful dimension to the piece with his original score. His compositions are beautiful and intimate, while dipping frequently into aggressive military drums and driving piano sections. The musical motifs he develops in the first song effectively blend through the piece, culminating in the disquieting choir of actors during the finale. With Jon Madden ’20 as the musical director, the musical background of “Mother Courage” is fully developed and artfully performed.

Freeman’s production drops the audience directly into the grimy and unnerving realities of war without apology. With the turntable, large cast of uniformed people, disturbing projections and stark lighting, the scenes and transitions overwhelm the audience with visual information. This overwhelming effect does not translate as confusing, however, but successfully communicates the realities of one of the deadliest wars in human history.

The show straddles a strange balance between removing the story from its historical context and including it. Lauby’s transition videos, for example, show a presumably accurate map of Mother Courage’s journey across Europe alongside inlaid video clips of war, propaganda and atrocities. Additionally, the soldiers in the ensemble wear uniforms that in turns look to be from the First and Second World Wars or contemporary SWAT teams. Nevertheless, the visual aesthetic never reads as distracting or out of place.

The musical performances of the cast are quite strong, though a few performers hesitate on songs that should be forceful and unapologetic. Additionally, though the show hits its full stride in the second act, some of the comedic bits in the first act claim to be funnier than they are. For a few moments, including a few right at the beginning, the performers seemed to be waiting for a laugh that either did not come or was not as strong as anticipated. These few shortcomings do not taint the epic quality of the show, however, and the ensemble is very talented.

Menge’s performance is quite impressive. Present in almost every scene with quite a far share of singing to do, Menge pulls off her role with aplomb. Both ruthless and determined, Menge’s Mother Courage gives no illusion of moral authority and yet cannot be entirely blamed for her actions.

“Mother Courage,” a smorgasbord of student and faculty talent, should not be missed.

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