A Streep Cart Named Desire

Meryl as Mother Courage: All there, but maybe a little short of Brecht

Courage's hard eye for a bargain, her shifting allegiances, and her crafty ability to talk her way out of any situation are not merely conceptual: Brecht found these elements in himself, not in his historical sources. When he first drafted the play in 1939, he had three acknowledged children; his eldest son, Frank, was killed fighting for the Nazis on the Russian front in 1943—a fact surely as relevant to the play as any definition of "alienation effect."

Facts are not what Tony Kushner's good at. A brilliant writer of rhetorical prose, he achieves his best effects, as in the great monologues of Angels in America, by piling up the phrases till they explode. This method is antithetical to that of Brecht, a poet who uses words purposively and exactingly. In Kushner's version, the common man has vanished from the lines I quoted above, to be replaced by an entirely irrelevant allusion to the Dies Irae. The "Americanizing" profanities and gag lines that Kushner scatters around, though distracting, are less harmful to the play's sense than his habit of throwing in these metaphysical grandiosities, and fancier phrases generally than Brecht employs. Following the text faithfully speech by speech, he has been unfaithful to it line by line. This doesn't help the actors, who tend either to shout pointlessly (Austin Pendleton's rendering of the "Song of the Hours" is particularly painful) or to turn the event into a casual tossing-about of phrases, with the threat of death nowhere near, despite the loud bombardment effects. Kevin Kline's Cook might be lounging poolside at some wealthy estate, and Jennifer Lewis's Yvette, though dazzlingly entertaining, is nowhere near the reality of a working girl who plays her cards right.

Mama, don't preach
photo: Michal Daniel
Mama, don't preach

Details

Mother Courage and Her Children
By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Tony Kushner
Delacorte Theater, Central Park
212-260-2400

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Brecht loved reality. He loved showbiz too, for what he could learn from it; he was as willing to learn from Ethel Merman and Bobby Clark as from Schiller and Hölderlin. But reality always held first claim on his soul. This is hard for Americans to grasp: To them, these days, reality is a subgenre of TV entertainment. We know, in increasing numbers, that the Iraq war is wrong, that the rapidly expanding mess in the Middle East is exactly the same kind of pointless and futile horror as the Thirty Years' War that devastated 17th-century Europe. Wolfe's production doesn't fail to evoke this awareness, but it does so with a strange lack of urgency, softening where it should be bluntest (as in the Drum Scene), underlining where emphasis is least needed. Courage says that even her daughter Kattrin's muteness is due to the war, because "a soldier stuck something in her mouth when she was little." Does anybody really need the pause and the gesture that Streep makes in the middle of that line to understand it? Having Mother Courage at all is a blessing, but having all of Mother Courage would be a greater one.

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