Jan 14, 2016

From the Review Vaults: Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children: Alexandria Wailes, Streep, Geoffrey Arend, and Frederick Weller. (photo by Michal Daniel)
Improbably, Brecht's Mother Courage is in the news--the theatre news, at least. If you put a gun to my head to name my favorite plays, this complicated, sprawling, funny, bleak play about the business of war would be near or at the top. So I had a rooting interest as I read about the battle over Classic Stage Company's current production, which Tonya Pinkins departed very publicly (Kecia Lewis has taken her place)--my agenda being that this great play get done, well, and that the discourse around it might reflect what I know and love about the play and about Brecht.

So for American Theatre I tried to contribute to the conversation by talking to composer Duncan Sheik, by publishing a thoughtful piece by McFeely Sam Goodman about the issues raised by Pinkins's protest, and then by speaking to Pinkins herself for our podcast. Whether the discourse has been elevated by these contributions or not, I leave to you.

What's come up often in all these conversations, and in my mind, is the last time Mother Courage rolled her cart around Manhattan (in a major production): In 2006, at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, for the Public's starry Kushner/Tesori adaptation. I reviewed it for Broadway.com (back when they had a critic--I was the last of them--long story there), and recently dredged it up from the Internet swamps. Let's just say it brings back fond memories, though I was a bit of an outlier (most critics were much cooler to it than I). (And while I'm backlinking, I will note again here my hearty disappointment with the documentary about the making of the Public's Mother Courage, Theater of War.)

Without further ado...my review, from August 2006.

Will Mother Courage and Her Children ever get a better English-language production than the one now at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park? I doubt it—and after this deluxe, definitive rendition of Brecht's much-revered but little-revived masterpiece, it may not need one. But the best news is that a mounting this engrossingly, almost embarrassingly excellent may finally, 50 years after Brecht's death, make the works of the prickly German theatrical revolutionary hot properties on American stages as they really never have been, apart from his musicals with Kurt Weill. 
What this sweeping, impassioned Courage does better than any Brecht revival I've ever seen is to give the author's vision, and his vaunted epic-theater style, its full due, without either mummifying it in purported Brechtian orthodoxy or saucing it up with extra-contemporary seasoning. Just staging a play as rich and rangy as this ought to be enough, but there's an awful temptation for left-leaning artists to use Brecht—and especially this, his most stinging indictment of the link between war and capitalism—as a cudgel against today's ever-sobering headlines. But playwright Tony Kushner, whose new English version has all the bark and bite we could wish and then some, and director George C. Wolfe understand that this towering play resonates backward as much as forward, from the now-arcane Catholic/Protestant/Habsburg skirmishes of the 17th century's Thirty Years War that are its backdrop to the bloodbaths of the 20th century, some of which Brecht knew intimately, up to today's uneasy wartime footing. At its bleak, unflinching best, Mother Courage gives us a sense of war as a state of being, almost a state of nature—a condition much of the world knows far better than we oblivious, forgetful Americans, but for how long? 
For the craven, troop-following entrepreneur nicknamed Courage (Meryl Streep), the war can never go on long enough. Though she shows us heartrending traces of the less jaded firebrand she might once have been, the Courage we meet is every bit the "hyena of the battlefield" one character uncharitably labels her: a cackling scavenger who subsists, barely, on what scraps of opportunity she can find. The children who haul her along in her horseless supply wagon are a sadder, unluckier lot: The strapping brute Eilif (Frederick Weller), the daft Swiss Cheese (Geoffrey Arend), and the mute Kattrin (Alexandria Wailes) have not been endowed by nature, nor by Courage's fitfully protective nurture, with the wit or wisdom to survive. Pulled into Courage's arm's-length orbit are a sensitive chaplain (Austin Pendleton) and a cynical cook (Kevin Kline), who compete slyly for her attentions. A wizened prostitute (Jenifer Lewis) with her own well-honed survival skills flits into the tableau at key moments.
The play's vast, near-Shakespearean scope of years and locations (and three-hour running time) belies the fact that it's really just a series of hard-nosed negotiations with ever-diminishing returns. The only respites from this relentless downhill trajectory are Brecht's slashing humor, here given a fresh zing in Kushner's deft translation, and a handful of songs, reset here in Jeanine Tesori's jauntily accomplished new score, which builds on the folksy modernism of Brecht collaborators Eisler and Weill but adds its own special strains of blues grit and melodic grandeur. Tesori does especially well by the jagged rhythms of the lyrics, with terse meters as spiky as barbed wire, particularly in the magisterial first-act closer, "The Song of the Great Capitulation," and its bitter sequel, delivered with fierce precision by Kline, "The Song of Solomon." 
Streep's performance is worthy of its own lengthy treatise. Suffice to say here that she climbs the heights of this complicated, paradoxical role with restless urgency and intelligence, bringing her bottomless reservoir of physical, vocal and emotional shades to bear. It's a virtuoso turn of the best kind—entirely in service to the play's vision and in tune with its rough music. And this is not the Meryl Show; her costars shine in their own right, not only in her reflected light. Pendleton makes his pathetic cleric a crashing bundle of nerves, surprisingly volatile despite his benign mien. Lewis owns her scenes as a whore with a heart of tin, particularly a haunting wrong-note blues number that recalls the wrenching power of Tesori's score for Caroline, or Change. Kline exudes his usual coolly virile presence, but with a starker, more desperate edge. Weller, Arend, and Wailes each etch distinct variations on the theme of pitiably stunted, misdirected youth.
The production's aesthetic is firmly and redolently last-century, with Riccardo Hernández's distressed-wood set suggesting Courage's wagon writ large and Marina Draghici's costumes evoking the sort of makeshift ensembles that could be bought off the same cart. There's a single-mindedness of purpose in this production, in other words, but it's never monotonous because it so fully renders the mottled poetry of rage, irony and defeat that is Brecht's special métier. It's a voice that our increasingly sensation-addled, endlessly self-referential American theater has missed or misheard for too long, and that desperately belongs on our stages in serious times.