War really can bring out the worst in humanity.
Or at least that's an easy impression to form based on Bertolt Brecht's musical play "Mother Courage and Her Children," as well as the Nebraska Repertory Theatre's knotty production.
Just like Brecht's original play, written near the start of World War II and set during the Thirty Years' War, the Rep production intentionally keeps its audience at arm's length using storytelling devices, such as projected narrations — one could call them spoilers — that reveal what's about to happen in each scene.
This forces the viewer to think critically, rather than empathetically, about the characters' actions.
The protagonist, Mother Courage, has dragged her three children to the front lines — in this adaptation by the Rep's Andy Park, it's the front lines of the American Civil War — so she can profit (she might say make a living) selling provisions to soldiers.
Shockingly, that proves to have been a terrible idea, at least for the kids.
Sure, Mother Courage employs her own savvy in attempts to shield her children from the battle. Without revealing too much, her efforts are futile.
Still, it's hard not to like Courage — thanks in part to a highly charismatic performance by Moira Mangiameli — or to pity her children, charmingly played by University of Nebraska-Lincoln acting students Emily Raine Blythe and Jesse Turos, and guest actor Mike Nappi (who also plays the trumpet for the production). But we never quite get comfortable.
With songs that highlight the characters' cognitive dissonance — and by extension, the inconsistent logic that permeates all wartime politics — Brecht's play demands a lot from its audience.
By setting his adaptation during the Civil War, Park has injected another layer of complexity. How can we shake our heads at a conflict, no matter how bloody, when it ended something as evil as American slavery?
That's a lot of big ideas to pack into such a small production. At its best, Park's adaptation gives those ideas room to breathe while moving at a pace that keeps the audience engaged. It's a tough balance to manage.