Meryl Streep returns to the stage in the year's big theatrical event and New York's hottest ticket: Bertolt Brecht's timeless war play, Mother Courage and Her Children, in New York's Central Park.
My main problem with this Mother Courage is simply how bland it is. This is quite a disappointment coming from director George Wolfe, who (during his long reign at The Public) both reinvented classics (The Tempest, On The Town) and cultivated exciting new and multicultural work (Bring in Da Noise, Fires in the Mirror, and his own classic Colored Museum).
The last thing I expected from Woolfe would be a Mother Courage that looked like a 2nd-company road tour of a very conservative European state theatre (if there are any).
Hiring a bold showman like Wolfe to helm a Mother Courage outdoors in the park, with Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori collaborating, strikes me as a wonderful opportunity to really play with the play. I'm as reverent a Brechtian as they come, but if ever there were a chance to do something different with a classic, this special summer slot is it.
Save the boring rep productions aping the Brecht model-books for the regular season. Imagine if Wolfe and company devised a 90-minute "riff" on Courage — fully updated to reference Iraq (instead of the safe, pussy-footing winks Kushner drops into the current scripts). Now that would have been an "event."
Ok, no point in reviewing what they didn't do. Still, it's Wolfe's lack of imagination that I want to focus on here. I'm interested in how much the word "tired" has come up in other reviews so far — how tired Streep looks at the end, how tired the audience gets. To me, "tired" is exactly the adjective to describe how the whole enterprise comes off — tired and grey.
Let's take Streep's costume, for starters. Not that anyone expects "colorful" in Brecht , but she looks like a mailman! I could see the impetus for the look — a sort of Soviet-era pastiche, bringing out a gender bending "toughness" in the character. But one need only compare the above photo side by side with images of the original Courage, Helene Weigel (AKA Faru Brecht), to see what's missing.
Weigel's rags may also have been grey, but they made a powerful statement about the character's social situation and struggle. Streep's outfit I found cute, frankly, and so did she it seemed — from all the fun she had cocking her hat and puffing Cook's pipe like Popeye the Sailor Man. In short, what's missing from her characterization, and the whole vision of the show, is the direness of the stakes, the desperation of everyone involved.
Scenically, Riccardo Hernandez (also usually more creative) has once again laid out a textbook "Brecht 101" set of wooden planks and turntable stage. The famous "wagon" looks just like you expect it to look. (Again, browse around here.) Unfortunately, none of it seems to fit comfortably on the crowded Delacorte stage, which only adds to the obligatoriness of it all.
There's nothing wrong, of course, with all these Brechtian trappings, per se (after all, they're part of what made Brecht Brecht), but here they're not employed to any useful effect (alienation or otherwise). There’s something half-assed about "quoting" these qualities without activating them.
I got excited when Wolfe suddenly had a modern jeep drive onstage to deliver the corpse of Eilif in a chillingly modern and mechanistic manner. That was because I could finally feel Wolfe was excited. Making a choice instead of following a playbook. But such refreshing choices were isolated and few and far between.
The period setting also raises some issues here. A proudly, eclectically anachronistic setting could have worked — borrowing freely, anarchically from wars present and past. But this was still 80 percent 17th century, with things like the mailman's hat and the jeep thrown in as afterthoughts. Again, lack of commitment.
Tesori's music certainly was working on the eclectic side. I'm surprised critics haven't picked up on the clear Sondheim touch in her "Song of Capitulation," a fitting Broadway style equivalent to Brecht's "shrug" of a song. But the Broadway-ness of the score throughout became a problem for me. As Peter Marks has argued, the songs become "numbers." I originally complained they didn't "fit," but of course I realize Brecht didn't want the songs to "fit" in a classic, Rogers & Hammerstein way.
Still, they should conceptually fit what you're trying to say in the production. Wolfe and Tesori (and presumably Kushner, who wrote the English lyrics) have obviously agreed on an approach that casts each song as a different musical genre, alternating between Sondheim, blues, vaudeville, and then some classic "Brechtian" pastiche of Weill and Dessau for good measure. The result is an impressive versatility, but no unified vision; and more a comment on the history of American musical theatre than economic imperatives behind war.
Speaking of the blues, that's for the songs of the prostitute Yvette. Another rare Wolfe "stamp" in the production is the conception of the character and the casting of African-American actress Jennifer Lewis. Lewis does a terrific job. But are her blues numbers a bit too pleasing? Is her persona a bit too winning and crowd-pleasing?
Yvette is not necessarily the raisonneur and straight talker of the play, rather just another businessperson out for herself. That gets lost if the audience is waiting for them to bring on more Yvette for an encore. This Yvette could have worked better if, again, the whole production were similarly updated and reconceived for a 21st century American idiom. That Yvette had so much attitude and the rest of the production was so grey (or, frankly, white) says it all.
Wolfe makes another stab at his own kind of theatricality in the climactic moment of Katrin's death. I suppose this is something of a "spoiler" since none of the reviews I've read go into detail, but when you see "Flying By Foy" in the program, you can already anticipate what's going to happen.
In a moment that obviously seems to recall his most famous collaboration with Kushner, Katrin transforms into an "angel" when shot down from the roof — a nice enough idea if it didn't have to be executed so clumsily. I know Brecht liked us to see stage mechanics, but watching a stagehand hook Katrin up pages before her big moment (so that she continues to play much of the scene in the harness), well that just doesn't fly in any aesthetic.
There was no such "magic" anywhere else during the three-plus hours. In fact, it was a telling glimpse of Wolfe the romantic bursting through the faux-Brechtian facade he had been putting up all evening. As ill-suited as his romantic temperament may be to Brecht, I would have welcomed it for its honesty if he had unleashed it more consistently throughout.
Had Wolfe really let loose, this could have been a wild, heretical, and thoroughly un-Brechtian Mother Courage, but still exciting theatre. In this vein, I think back to Scott Elliott's scandalous Threepenny Opera at the Roundabout a few months back.
On the one hand, you can look at these two mega-productions together and conclude it's sad that two of our premiere NYC theatre institutions, who have the best of everything at their disposal, can't get Brecht right. On the other, I'll still maintain Elliott's was certainly the more watchable, interesting, and brave of the two, even if it was totally wrong. I'll take strong and wrong over safe and lame.
I will say that the much commented-upon length of Mother Courage is not the problem. It's a long play, deal. While I would have been interested in a radical reimagining and recutting (if you're going to do the play as written), it will be this long, probably. The fault for making the play feel long is Wolfe's.
A more unifying vision (even if the elements are, by Brecht's design, disparate and disjointed) can help, as would more prominent theatrical throughlines to take us through the evening — a greater visual focus on the imagery of goods, exchange; leaner storytelling in the translation; a less cluttered stage; and a more consistent musical voice (and ultimately, more seismic, compelling central performance).
After this and the Seagull, I'm beginning to question Streep's suitability for the stage after all. I missed out on her early triumphs at Yale and in the Papp Public days, but in these two appearances, she still seems to be playing in close-up. Her voice and body are expressive, but the former thin and the latter cautious.
Streep expresses Courage's cynicism in a half-hearted chuckle, but what she needs is a true Brechtian social gestus that comes out of her whole physical action. It's simply not a big enough performance. (My first thought at intermission was that Patti LuPone is doing this role much better in Sweeney Todd. Heretical, I know.)
The show has its supporters, for sure. Rob Kendt has documented and stayed on top of the response better than I tried here and here. To be fair, I can see how, if someone just loves the play and wants to hear it and see it done in a textbook, this non-intrusive fashion (free of directorial concept) could satisfy whatever conservative taste there possibly can be for Brecht anyway. (Hence, John Simon's rave!)
An opportunity was missed here, though, to take ownership of this play in an American, 21st century idiom, to take advantage of the civic spectacle of a free performance in a public space and claim it for our unique moment in history, when a war is tearing us apart at home and quite possibly leading to the downfall of the American Empire. Instead we get a perfectly respectable Brecht — which I'm sure is the last thing he would have wanted right now.
Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Tony Kushner
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Produced by The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Running through September 3