By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Mar 24, 2011 at 9:01 AM

It's a busy week in Milwaukee theater, and I want to focus attention on two small-venue productions that are in danger of being overlooked. Although wildly different, the shows share a common thread -- each is about an unusually strong woman.

Off the Wall Theatre opens Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage" in its tiny Wells Street space tonight. The 1939 classic hasn't been professionally staged here in 31 years.

Manitowoc actress Liysa Callsen is bringing her original one-woman show "codadiva" to the Vox Box at the Marian Center for Nonprofits in Bay View Saturday night. The performance will be repeated the following Saturday, April 2.

Callsen is a coda, the term for hearing children of deaf parents, and her monolog consists of stories about her learning as a child how to simultaneously navigate through the hearing and deaf communities. By the time she reached kindergarten, Callsen, who grew up in Detroit, was her parents' connection to the hearing world.

While other kids returned home from school to a late afternoon of playing with friends or watching TV, she was greeted by a daily list of adult tasks -- discuss car problems with the mechanic, talk to the insurance agent, make an appointment with the dentist. At 12, Callsen was her mother's interpreter in a critical meeting with a physician, and she had to tell her mom the doctor said she needed brain surgery.

The girl shouldered responsibilities and the emotional burdens of an adult, and she learned to manipulate her voice to sound older on the phone. "People were hanging up on me when I called," she recently said at a Third Ward coffee shop. "I was always working as a child."

Callsen experienced a slice of life that few do. "I was an advocate from birth, although I didn't know it," she said. As a hearing child, she heard people make patronizing and sometimes ignorant comments about her parents. She was also asked amazingly stupid questions.

"Can deaf people have children, can they drive a car, do they live in separate communities, can they read braille? I've gotten those questions," the Manitowoc woman said.

Callsen said she was the model of a nice girl in the face of bad behavior from hearing adults, but she developed an attitude in her 20s. "If they were obnoxious in their gawking, I became more obnoxious with my signing," she recalled, referring to her functioning as an interpreter.

"Was I scarred for life? No. Am I better for it? Yes."

Even after moving away from her home and parents, Callsen remained connected with deaf culture and fondly attached to American Sign Language. She married a deaf man; their children are hearing.

Attracted to acting, she studied improv at Second City in Chicago and operated with a partner the small Bubbler Theatre in Manitowoc for a while. "My entire life has been improv," she said.

"My show is definitely a statement. It is all of the things I have wanted to say for so long. I'm telling the story of my parents, how they met, how they created a deaf family, and how I was always working."

In an interesting twist, Callsen will silently perform in American Sign Language. The 75-minute piece is primarily intended for a hearing audience, and an interpreter will speak the actress' words.

Explaining her decision to do that, Callsen said, "ASL is my first language. It's the one I'm most comfortable with, the language I'm most open with."

Tickets, priced at $12, can be ordered in advance on the codadiva Web site. The Vox Box is a voice studio and performance space in Suite 423 at the Marian Center, 3211  S. Superior St. Capacity is slightly more than 50.

Small business owners are routinely extolled by politicians speaking with reverence about the nation's economy, but Brecht showed us another side of the entrepreneurial spirit in "Mother Courage." Set during the Thirty Years War, one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, the drama follows a woman pulling her rolling canteen across battlefields in the hope of turning a profit and saving her three adult children.

The piece is epic sized in its emotional sweep, length -- it usually runs about three and a half hours -- and effort expended by the audience and actress playing the title role. Productions are often physically huge.

Off the Wall producer and director Dale Gutzman regularly squeezes large and ambitious shows into his 60-seat storefront, so we shouldn't be surprised that he is now tackling "Mother Courage." "I've read the play many times over the years, and I've always wanted to do it," he recently told me. "Finally I thought I understood it enough to go ahead with it."

Gutzman was concerned with making the drama accessible and palatable to contemporary audiences. "I began looking for a translation that was not archaic," he explained. The producer-director wound up using five different translations, including Tony Kushner's recent version, to write his own "Mother Courage" script.

"I tried to use the most accurate words, and sometimes I substituted a modern word," he said. "The audience must be able to follow the play." He also shaved about an hour from the usual running time.

"Brecht said, do it quickly, do it light." That is the opposite of many of the drama's modern productions, which can be ponderous.

Gutzman began talking with longtime collaborator Marilyn White about portraying "Mother Courage" three years ago. A retired MPS music teacher, she has acted and sung in his productions for about 30 years.

"Reading the play is very daunting. There is so much dialog, and she (Mother Courage) is in constant motion," White said. "And there are a million props. I wondered if Dale was crazy to ask me to do this."

White, her husband Randy and Gutzman traveled to London two years ago to see an acclaimed production of "Mother Courage" at the National Theatre. It convinced them to mount the classic here.

"At this point in my life, I want to do things that challenge me," White said. "I want to grow."

Gutzman assures her that will happen. "The character (Mother Courage) is sort of a female King Lear, and in Brecht's style, you must change moods from line to line. The role demands everything a person feels in life, and that must be shown to the audience."

Mother Courage's wagon is the visual focus of the play, and White's husband, a hobby carpenter, built one for Off the Wall's vest pocket stage. The contraption is five feet long, seven feet high and about three and a half feet wide.

Although it is not a musical, the show contains 10 songs for which Brecht wrote the lyrics. Jack Forbes Wilson has composed new music for Brecht's words.

Two musicians, accompanied by some members of the 17-person cast providing percussion, will play the songs.

"Mother Courage" opens tonight for a run through April 3.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.