Rita Hight. Photo: David Y. Chack

Mother Courage and Her Children

By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Tony Kushner
Directed by David Y. Chack

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Is there a fundamental misunderstanding of Bertolt Brecht? Does the audience imagine a lugubrious German intellectual exercise? Mother Courage and Her Children is a comedy, albeit a dark one, and David Y. Chack’s production establishes a contemporary satiric tone just short of sketch comedy. Imagine Carol Burnett as the title character and Harvey Korman as Cook and consider the possibilities.

Eliciting laughter is essential to Brecht’s powerful commentary on humanity’s obsession with war, but the opening night audience seemed slow to respond. Chack has intentionally staged this Mother Courage in an unconventional space, one designed for assembly but not theatre per se, and the room works against the good energy and high spirit of his capable cast, yet it does not defeat them.

Brecht wrote the play in the late 1930s and set it during the Thirty Years War of the early 1600s, but it speaks to the fears and anxiety of our moment because it speaks to all such moments in history. Mother Courage’s odyssey across a war-torn Europe feels like a lifetime, and the chilling conclusion is that war is perhaps humankind’s natural state and that peace provides moments of regeneration before the inevitable destruction begins again. She and her three children travel with a wagon, selling goods and trying to avoid becoming entangled in the political forces engaged in the war, but can anyone maintain such neutrality when war and aggression must constantly be fed?

“I have no private drama within me,” states Mother Courage, but with each new injury inflicted upon her family her attitude vacillates between cursing the “fucking war” and proclaiming, “Don’t knock war!” She profits from it even while it destroys her family because she has never known anything else.

As bleak as that sounds, this remains an entertaining show, full of songs and vivid, insightful dialogue given new immediacy in Tony Kushner’s adaptation. Chack builds on that with costumes (by Mia Seitz) both evocative of the past and deliberately echoing contemporary military trappings, and by indulging an electric rock star vibe in one late evening number. The limitations of the performance space have to do with sound and energy but it allows a fuller range of movement for that iconic wagon, a crucial element, and some resonant projections that speak volumes.

Rita Hight is a familiar figure on local stages, most often in supporting roles, so it is a pleasure to see her take up the mantle of this challenge and deliver a full-blooded and highly detailed rendition of this woman. She never shrinks from the broad delivery required here, but she also excavates subtle moments of pathos. Hight is on stage so much of the three hour running time and shows impressive reservoirs of skill, stamina, and inspiration all the way through this journey. She also realizes the Jewish identity of the character with integrity, without resorting to hoary cliché.

Following closely after her are Terry Tocantins’ savvy and self-serving Cook, who dominates the narrative in unexpected ways, Gracie Taylor’s deceptively facile Yvette, a Farmer’s Wife who has important things to say and do in act two, and Isaac Fosl-van Wyke, who occupies early soldiers and leaders with aplomb, Bailey Story’s Chaplain, who illuminates the complicity of religion in the affairs of conquest and destruction.

The Children are the fluid and malleable Swiss Cheese, well-realized by Tucker Keel, and the more stalwart and conventionally masculine Eilif, given a deliberately dull face by S. Mackell, which is not something most actors are eager to do. The young mute daughter, Katrin is a nearly perfect Lila Schaffner, struggling to communicate through gestures and a series of gruff, insistent grunts that are almost always received by the other characters with obtuse confusion. The audience can always tell what Katrina is trying to say, but not the people sharing the stage. Schaffner, a particularly busy young actor, is also given the task of speaking a recurring narration, which she does with crisp efficiency.

Katie Graviss Bechtler, another reliable presence on local stages, and Maxwell Williams also do strong work, with Claire Wice and Frances Socolick nicely filling out the ensemble. Wice just happens to be in a wheelchair and I like that she was folded into this ensemble with little fuss.

Music is another essential ingredient, and here is provided by the most excellent Gregory and Abigail Maupin, who composed and recorded an evocative sore filled with klezmer flavor that reinforces but never takes focus. It is one indicator of the Jewish identity that runs through the show. The film projections are another. At first scenes of a funeral cortege seemingly Eastern European that eventually gain a sharper Jewish focus before ending with images that make director Chack’s subtext unmistakable.

Mother Courage and Her Children is an edifying evening of theatre that carries its running time pretty well. In an age when the 90-minute one-act is a common occurrence, the value of being given the opportunity to experience a seminal moment in the development of modern theatre is incalculable. For many of us, Brecht is an academic exercise, but it is never enough simply to read the page when every decision the writer made is in the service of giving the story life onstage. Go for the laughs and outrage, and leave humming the closing music and thinking about the conflict between order and chaos, but remember that Mother Courage and Her Children is not likely to come around again anytime soon.

Mother Courage and Her Children

February 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, & 22 @ 7:30 pm
February 16 & 23 @ 4:30 pm

Tickets: brownpapertickets.com

General Admission $24 / Seniors $22 / Students $18
Groups of 10 or more, contact Rhonda Reskin at 502-558-7881 or rlbreskin@gmail.com

ShPieL – Performing Identity
Locust Grove – Audubon Auditorium
561 Blankenbaker Lane
Louisville, KY 40207


Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, where he is Managing Editor of their Artebella blog, and host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com. But spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.



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