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A CurtainUp Review
Mother Courage and her Children
by Les Gutman
There are a number of stars, from a number of galaxies, clustering at the Delacorte this summer to bring about this production of the play the Public Theater's Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis, calls the greatest play of the 20th Century. None of them are newcomers to The Public Theater. The brightest of these stars is, of course, Meryl Streep. She is joined onstage by Kevin Kline, no dim bulb himself. The other stars are the playwright Tony Kushner, here providing a new translation of Brecht's masterwork; the director George Wolfe, returning to The Public after more than a decade as its head; and the composer, Jenine Tesori, who collaborated with Kushner and Wolfe on Caroline, or Change. Not surprisingly, all of these individuals have made very specific choices in re-rendering the play. Can their collective talents possibly produce a result that reaches our high expectations?
Streep is, as almost always, Streep -- an actor of immense talent who is terrific to watch no matter what she does. Here, she does not disappoint in the least. In the huge role given to the title character, her performance is as keenly calibrated as one can imagine. She grabs our attention immediately, and never loses it over the course of the next three hours. Kline is not as exciting. His Cook does not display his best work, and he never develops the sexual chemistry (or any other raison d'être) with Mother Courage. Wolfe has some good ideas going, and some scenes which are breathtaking, but this is also not his best work. Kushner's translation is a faithful one, which contemporizes the language (some might say too much) and underscores the currency of its politics emphatically and at times manipulatively. Tesori's music, clearly conjuring up Kurt Weil, is serviceable but not memorable.
The star that shines brightest in this production is none of the above. It is Jenifer Lewis, whose Yvette is everything we could hope for, and more. She not only is the best thing about this show; she brings out some of the best in everyone else's work on it.
There is no way to stage Mother Courage without making some hard choices. Should it be presented as Brecht intended, as a form of Epic Theater in which his "alienation effect" is given its due? Or should it be seen more conventionally? Wolfe directs an amiable production that uses the alienation effect as window dressing, but mostly eschews its intent. It's not surprising; most productions do. Wolfe engages the audience in the storytelling throughout, even though Brecht would have wanted nothing of the sort. Kushner's translation seeks to modernize the agit-prop; Wolfe does not follow his cue. In the end, this may be the production's fatal flaw, though it should be added, generally, that it is a far more vacant emotional consideration of the material than it might have been.
The role of Mother Courage is one of the most difficult around. And like the staging itself, it calls for a decision as to its direction. There are, some would say, two seminal characterizations: that of Helene Weigel, Brecht's wife, in Berlin, which gave full effect to (indeed defined) the alienation effect, and that of Judi Dench, in London, in which Courage became a "character" in the most amusing sense of the word. Streep follows the Dench route, creating a fascinating multi-layered character bringing to mind any number of tough customer women (think, for lack of a better example, Cher in Moonstruck). Whatever one might say of this production, one can only marvel at the many levels on which Streep demonstrates the complexity of her character, and her commitment to it. To say that Mother Courage demands choices is not to forget that, ultimately, this is a play about choices. And if Streep has burned nothing else into our consciousness on this subject besides her aria on this subject just before the intermission -- one of the productions most penetrating scenes built around "The Song of the Great Capitulation" -- no more is really required.
Mother Courage is about the peculiar characteristics of capitalism that makes war a desirable option, and that even causes a woman to doom her cherished children in its wake. The travails of those children are an essential ingredient, and here we are met with mixed results. Neither Frederick Weller as the brave son Eilif, the best of the brood, nor Geoffrey Arend as the slow but honest son Swiss Cheese, nor Alexandria Wailes as the mute daughter Katrin ever develop the awfulness of their fates with what's needed to contextualize it. Katrin's drum-beating scene, which should be one of the most devastating moments in modern theater, falls flat. Austin Pendleton's Chaplin is more pleasingly rendered, though, as with the others, one is left with the feeling that no one (and that one would be Mr. Wolfe) explained why they were here.
Riccardo Hernández's set, rustic and worn-torn, is splendid, as are Paul Gallo's moody lights and Marina Draghici's costumes. There are plenty of special effects on display here -- rain, snow, fire and a nifty projected battle scene to overlay the show's finalé compete with Ms. Streep's organically-generated fireworks -- which only underscores our disappointment that some of the less special effects are not.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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