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  • Stephanie Kulke

Mother Courage and Her Children at Trap Door Theatre



On the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine, and four months into the war in Gaza, I caught

Trap Door Theatre’s production of Bertold Brecht’s Mother Courage.

Trap Door has picked an opportune moment to program one of the master works of Brecht’s

brand of political theatre, two wars rage overseas and the U.S. is experiencing the aftershocks

of a political insurrection.

The techniques of Brecht’s epic theater with its montage of scenes, representational characters,

song interludes, projected titles and utilitarian props requires American actors to use a specific

toolbox of theater techniques.

Trap Door has built their reputation on producing European, experimental, and rarely done plays

and they are in fine form with Mother Courage.

Director Max Truax chooses to break the fourth wall from the moment the audience enters the

charming little theater space, tucked neatly between two dining rooms of a restaurant.

The actors in stylized white makeup and thrift shop military garb acknowledge audience

members as they come in. A commander patrols the stage monitoring patrons as we maneuver

into our closely packed seats.

The cast features Holly Cerney (as Mother Courage), Rashaad Bond and Bill Gordon (as her

sons Eilef and Swiss Cheese), Joan Nahid (as the mute daughter Katrin) as well as a cast of 4

others who play a range of supporting characters including soldiers, a chaplain, and a prostitute.

Brecht describes Mother Courage’s wagon as another character in the play. It is the wagon, that

shelters and provides a livelihood for her itinerant family of traveling tinkers by selling supplies

and lots and lots of brandy to the troops from the wagon. The production uses wooden rifles to

good effect. They serve as stand ins for various equipment and goods for sale, such as the

brandy bottle frequently poured into customer’s mugs, as well as serving as a potent symbol of

her war profiteering. In one scene, the shrewd Mother Courage, realizing meat is scarce,

exponentially raises the price of a chicken to sell to the Army cook when a feast is required.

Among the production’s strengths are the performance of its narrative songs and the solidness

of the entire ensemble who commit to the physicality and the versatility the play requires. In

“The Fraternization Song,” the camp prostitute Yvette (played by Nina Martins) enters wearing a

garish hat and red ankle boots, to tell the tragic story of her love for and subsequent

abandonment by the army Cook, which led to her unhappy present situation. As she sings, we

watch as the mute daughter Katrin, wearing Yvette’s red boots, approaches a row of men seen

boots only from under the hem of an army blanket curtain, and begins to play footsie with the

blue booted Army Cook (Kevin Webb).

Step ladders are used in ingenious ways as elder son Eilef makes his way over the terrain of

war and to establish the rank of characters in the Army hierarchy.

Operating outside the hierarchal rules is Mother Courage, who plays wily tricks on the regiment

to to  keep her children alive and to make a buck. Ultimately, she loses them all, one by one to

the war.

As the central character, Holly Cerney is a powerful force with her lean strong body, and skillfully

employs an alternately musical voice with a husky braying as the text requires. We witness her

deep longing to give up the wagon at last and find security with the Cook in a cozy inn he has

inherited. But the Cook’s condition is that she leave behind her daughter, scarred from a recent

beating by soldiers. The price is too steep for her own safety and comfort and Mother Courage

sticks with her daughter.

There are no references inserted into the show to the literal wars going on in our time. Brecht

would not have objected to this – as he once wrote, “We must not derive realism as such from

particular existing works, but we shall use every means, old and new, tried and

untried, derived from art and derived from other sources to render reality to men in a form they

can master.”

But updates aren’t necessary to get the point across that war is hell. And that even the most

capable, opportunistic, and wise are not guaranteed to survive.

As the play ends, with all her children dead and the war entering a new phase, we watch Mother

Courage struggle to pull the wagon alone.

Will she survive through the end of the war? Will we?   

Jeff nominated Mother Courage and Her Children is sold out through the end of its run on March 9 at Trap Door Theatre at 1655 W. Cortland Street in Chicago. for tickets and information go to https://trapdoortheatre.com/mother-courage-and-her-children/

  For more reviews go to www.TheatreInChicago.com




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