nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 20, 2006
Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline starring in a new translation by Tony Kushner of a play that the Public Theater's artistic director Oskar Eustis says is the "greatest play of the twentieth century". My God, this should be the event of the summer, if not the season. Alas, this new production of Brecht's Mother Courage, directed by George C. Wolfe, is anything but; what it is, in fact, is an overblown and overlong (3 hours plus!) bore. How did this happen?
Streep works hard. Very, very hard. Mother Courage is a marathon role—on stage for nearly all of those 3+ hours, and running the gamut from broad comedy to deep tragedy to philosophical satire...and she sings, too. Streep, radiant and luminous even in a costume that looks something like army fatigues with a long skirt, never seems to find a way into this character's head, heart, or soul, however; in the first act she seems to be channeling Tyne Daly as Rose in Gypsy, a driven, difficult woman scratching and clawing her way to a good life for her children and herself; and in the second act, suddenly adopting a weird sardonic laugh and a breathy "Yah" as a vocal tic for her character, she's just mannered. What she's not, emphatically, is the half-gallant, half-horrifying, all-pragmatic capitalist that I think Brecht intended.
The story of Mother Courage depicts more than a decade in the life of its eponymous character, a merchant who lives and works out of her wagon, selling goods to the soldiers who she follows around during various campaigns of the disastrous Thirty Years War in northern and central Europe in the early 1600s. Mother Courage has three children—a smart, ambitious boy named Eilif, a dumb but honest boy called Swiss Cheese, and a mute daughter, Kattrin. Her goal, she says (and appears to believe) is to protect them from the wicked world, but attending to moneymaking ultimately prevents her from attending to their well-being, which is both her tragedy and Brecht's main point about the ugly consequence of capitalist endeavor.
The play's structure follows the outlines of Brecht's epic theater, with more-or-less naturalistic scenes interrupted every so often by songs that amplify the play's themes with stark directness. The music here, by Jeanine Tesori, lacks a cohesive style, I think by design, trying to bend us away from the jazzy Kurt Weill discord that we associate with Brecht (though Mother Courage was written long after Brecht and Weill ceased collaborating). Wolfe and Kushner seem almost uncomfortable with the format, with some numbers straining for Rodgers-&-Hammerstein-ish integration in the plot and others given outsized stagy presentations that feel at odds with the raw, spare storytelling that mostly propels the show. (Wolfe introduces special effects, often anachronistic ones at that, which also interfere with the flow of the show; not to mention a stately and unnecessary battlefield tableau just before Mother Courage's final scene that halts the proceedings entirely.)
Kushner's translation seems to relish vulgarity and lewd double entendre; it also introduces pointed topical references so blatant and obvious that they feel as if they were added into the script in double-underlined italic boldface type. So this line (translated by Eric Bentley)
He's unbeatable. Why? His men believe in him. To hear the big fellows talk, they wage war from fear of God and for all things bright and beautiful, but just look into it, and you'll see they're not so silly: they want a good profit out of it, or else the little fellows like you and me wouldn't back 'em up.
is turned into this by Kushner:
The King will never be defeated, and why, his people believe in him, and why? Precisely because everyone knows he's in it to make a profit. If he wasn't, little people like me would smell disaster in the war and steer away. If it's business, it makes sense.
Has something essential been sacrificed in the shift toward our very specific predicament, here and elsewhere in this version of the play?
More to the point: if Kushner wants to write a play about the War in Iraq or whatever, why doesn't he do so? I'm going to repeat one of my mantras now (so you've been warned): wouldn't all the resources and talent that have gone into making this very unpersuasive and haphazard retread of Brecht been better applied to something new and pertinent and specifically about whatever it is that's on the minds of Kushner, Tesori, Streep, Wolfe, and whoever else wants to be involved? Tacking on some satirical swipes at the current administration to a famous play is a far less risky proposition in every way than creating something new that might address our nation's ills head-on. If a double Oscar winner and a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright aren't in the position to take that sort of a risk, than who is?
There are a few moments in Mother Courage that register powerfully enough to make us believe that a grand and engaging piece of theatre could have been created here. One comes in the first act, when Alexandra Wailes as Kattrin spends a few captivating, silent moments trying on and coveting the fancy hat and shoes of a visiting prostitute—a gorgeous testament to exquisite, understated acting and to the never-ending struggle between haves and have-nots. The other happens near the end of the show, when Mother Courage and her current boyfriend/hanger-on, a former army cook, are reduced to literally singing for their supper, begging on a snowy night beneath the windows of a house. Kevin Kline, as the Cook, performs the "Solomon Song," one of Brecht's greatest creations, a cockeyed celebration of mediocrity and anonymity as the keys to self-preservation. It's thought-provoking and downright chilling, and Kline comes as close as anyone to stopping the show at the end of it.
But the gutsy interpretation that Kline offers here is almost never matched elsewhere in a production that finally only feels long and unnecessary. I sincerely believe that the folks responsible for this production earnestly mean whatever they think Mother Courage means. What I wish is that, instead of relying on a 60-year-old play to speak for them, they'd reclaim their own potentially courageous voices and speak for themselves.