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Ensemble Theatre’s ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ wobbles

It was with great anticipation that I set out across snow covered roads to reach Notre Dame College and Ensemble Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children”. I-71 and I480 were both suffering from hypertension and high blood pressure so were on a reduced sodium diet and it was the “parade of the crazies” as was evident by the number of serious accidents witnessed on the way over and back.

So...after this hour of white knuckle driving (plus the long trip back home) was it worth seeing “what is considered one of the greatest plays in the twentieth century”? In a word “NO!” I really should know better. Anytime I hear such hyperbole about a theatrical work I am reminded of my experience of seeing another “masterbeast” in the form of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot”. I just do not enjoy boring plays and both of these works (the Irish “Godot” and the German “Children”) really do nothing for me.

The show is set during the religious Thirty Years War from 1624-1636 that engulfed most of Europe with horrific casualties (they manage to mention the date numerous times). Mother Courage (Laura Rauh) is a traveling peddler who along with her two sons, Swiss Cheese (Michael Montanus), Eilif (Santino Montanez) and mute daughter, Kattrin (Kierstan Kathleen Conway) all three of various fathers, follow the armies pushing a wagon from battle to battle selling various black market contraband that is nearly impossible to procure. Items such as clean socks, boots, buckles, helmets, uniforms and of course booze are doled out from the ready supply of her four wheeled conveyance.

Early on, “recruiters” show up to enlist Mother’s two sons, Swiss Cheese (a bit of a dullard) and Eilif (a robust youth spoiling for a fight). After their departure she is joined by a chaplain (Dan Zalevsky) and Yvette, a prostitute (Leah P. Smith) who join her as she follows the armies. While dealing a chicken she meets the regimental cook (Joseph Milan) and after some fierce bartering makes a deal and acquires a lover. There is also a singer (Kyle Huff) who pops up from the ensemble from time to time.

The years of this religious war stretches on seemingly eternally (at least that is what it felt like sitting in the audience). When peace finally seems to be within reach, fighting once again breaks out once more taking something precious from Mother.

So what is wrong with this particular production? To start with, even though we are constantly reminded of the dates there is a heavy mixture of modern influences. Uniforms are straight out of the local Army-Navy store. Sound effects include bombs dropping, artillery firing and machine guns as well as air raid sirens (not quite 1700s). Weapons are all modern as well. Then there is the young man who enters the stage with an electric guitar (Whaa?) and the hohner button box played by cook is three hundred years ahead of its time.

The show is not only long (three hours with intermission) but the pacing drags along like soldiers plodding through mud. One relief was the fact that the theater provides very tasty coffee that helped keep us awake. As for the singing, it could be eliminated entirely. The songs make little sense and are badly performed to boot. Singing is not this show’s forte. While the premise that Mother is supplying a full army from her wagon, it is scantly stocked with needed props. As for the acting, there is little excuse for flubbed lines and there were a lot of them. None of the characters are “lovable” yet they could be. The audience is never given the chance. Lastly, during the scenes of sad humor I could hear laughter but looking across at the other audience members my gaze was met with grim, tight lipped faces. Turns out it was members of the ensemble that were generating laughter from behind the curtains. Seriously, a laugh tract?

On the bright side, the show is not a total loss. Joseph Milan as Cook is probably the strength of the show although the long “chicken bartering” scene with him forever fussing with the cabbage, carrots and other odd vegetables along with the overly mentioned “rancid meat” could have been compacted a bit. Kierstan Kathleen Conway as Kattrin as the mute daughter gives a commanding performance as well. Her lack of dialogue outshines many of those with speaking lines. Through movement, mime and eyes she is able to convey complex thoughts. Bravo! Lastly, Dan Zalevsky as the Chaplain portrays a man torn between two opposing worlds. You feel his suffering as he fights his conscience in trying to make an ethical moral decision.

To say that this production is not one of my favorites would be an understatement. Perhaps it was an off night. If so, humor me, buy a ticket and see for yourself. For me there was no mother's love.

The Ensemble Theatre production of “Mother Children and Her Children” will be on stage at Notre Dame College at 4545 College Rd, South Euclid, Ohio through February 25, 2024. For more information and tickets go to or call (216) 321-2930.


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Who is Mark Horning?

Over the course of my life I have worked a variety of jobs including newspapers, retail camera sales and photography. Eight years ago I embarked on yet another career as writer. This included articles concerning sports and cultural events in Cleveland, Ohio as well reviews of the many theatrical productions around town. These days are spent photographing professional dance groups, theater companies and various galas and festivals as well as attending various stage performances and posting reviews about them.  

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