Meryl Streep has never met a contradiction she hasn't treated as an old friend. Her ability, uniquely honed among contemporary actors in any medium, to manage multiple emotional tennis matches in which the weakest volleys smash expectations and the strongest coddle them, has deservedly earned her a reputation as queen of stage and screen. So it was only a matter of time until one of our best actresses took on the mother of all theatrical embodiments of contradiction: Anna Fierling, better known as Mother Courage.
Such a pairing would be an event so larger-than-life that only the Delacorte Theater, The Public Theater's summer home in Central Park, could safely contain it (as audiences discovered when Streep returned to the stage with The Seagull five years ago). However, judging from the resulting production of Bertolt Brecht's fiercest masterpiece, which has been translated by Tony Kushner and directed by George C. Wolfe, containment was never a concern.
There's no chance that Streep will disappoint the hordes of hopeful audiences who must wait untold hours for tickets: A great actress in a great role in a great play is always worth the time and trouble. But if those tireless souls waiting in line are hoping for a Streep they recognize - or one allowed to be her luminous best by the production surrounding her - they're better off going back to bed.
Streep, who's won Oscars for Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie's Choice and acclaim for nearly everything else, has never vanished more completely into a role. She's eschewed her trademark clean beauty for a rough skirt and an officer's jacket and cap: androgyny at its utmost, an ideal look for a woman as caught between sides in the battle between femininity and masculinity as she is between the Catholics and the Protestants waging the Thirty Years' War from which she's attempting to make her living. Streep sees this duality, the yearning for peace and the profiting from war, as Courage's key feature, and is never better than when capitalizing on it.
As Streep presents her, Mother Courage is as innocent as she is self-aware and as blameless as she is complicit, making her actions as sensible as they are frightening. She seeks companionship and fidelity with a Swedish cook (Kevin Kline) and a Protestant chaplain (Austin Pendleton), only to abandon them when they begin to turn away. She brings about the deaths of her three children - the brave Eilif (Frederick Weller), the honest but vacant Swiss Cheese (Geoffrey Arend), and the mute Kattrin (Alexandria Wailes) - even as she tries to protect them. Most important, she pursues business to the extent of all else, bringing about the very tragedies she hopes her prosperity will help her avoid.
Never is this clearer than in Streep's finest single moment, "The Song of the Great Capitulation," an attempt to convince an outraged soldier and herself that it's sometimes best to keep one's mouth shut and go with the flow. She's reminding herself - and us - of both the virtues and the vices of never taking sides. As she tears into the song, ripping apart and reconstructing its decorously detached sentiment as some women might gossip, you understand, as you don't with all Mother Courages, the depths of this one's potential and pain.
Those interior struggles, however riveting, cannot occur in a vacuum. Unfortunately, the production orbiting Streep's endlessly complicated center is as airy and simpleminded as Swiss Cheese. Kushner and Wolfe, artists who are always challenging and thoughtful even when unsuccessful, have decided this time to angle their work so exclusively to the masses that they've eviscerated Brecht's words of all of their poetry and subtlety, and most of their narrative power.
Kushner's attempts to work in modern colloquialisms (often slang and swear words) and overly nimble, jokey wordplay do less to lighten a long production (three solid hours) than to cheapen it. His new lyrics (for which Jeanine Tesori has composed music that sounds like Stephen Sondheim and Kurt Weill mugging Cy Coleman) swap harsh-yet-delicate lyricism for commonplace images, to deadening effect. And, unsurprisingly, he can't resist the temptation to comment on current events: The evening's biggest laugh line, the Cook's "But it's expensive, liberty, especially when you start exporting it to other countries," is a gross distortion of Brecht, inserted solely for the sake of between-the-eyes contemporary relevance that Mother Courage never lacks anyway.
Wolfe's work is little better, with erratic pacing and poor use of an ill-suited set (by Riccardo Hernández) apparently designed for a proscenium space and not the Delacorte's thrust. Unable to decide on a unifying style, he's created nothing but blunt, uninteresting stage pictures, occasionally punctuated with unusually heavy-handed anachronisms: At one point, a military jeep barrels through the 17th century battlegrounds; the final, traditionally haunting tableau of Courage hauling her wagon alone behind a passing regiment is obliterated with stage-filling video projections of marching soldiers and explosions that spell out implicit points as if with pulsing neon.
This grants the production an epic feeling, yes, but one considerably more pandering than profound. Worse, this overriding obviousness prevents the other performers from drawing their own conclusions about the material, and developing an array of interesting personalities that will enable them to hold their own onstage.
Kline never finds an arc to match Streep's, and neither he nor the languidly milquetoast Pendleton seem apt companions for a Courage this individualistic. Arend is too impenetrable for the supposedly transparent Swiss Cheese, though Weller demonstrates a nice, basic bravado and a pleasing singing voice; Jenifer Lewis, as the prostitute Yvette whose own romantic leanings get her involved in Courage's tagalong army, approximates sparks during her "Song of Fraternization," but never catches fire. Wailes impresses only in isolated moments, especially in her determined death scene.
Only Streep's portrayal resonates with any consistent vitality. The fire, the ice, the desexualization, all in pursuit of the success that will eventually lead to failure, richly establish the context of a woman forever placing herself at the mercy of impossible choices. Streep dazzles playing this, restoring music to lines and scenes Kushner has denuded, and tells you as much about this impossible woman as anyone in recent memory has. Even so, you sense the actress's longing for deeper exploration than her simplistic surroundings allow.
She and Brecht are both victims of the translator's characteristic didacticism and the director's uncharacteristic restraint: One could scarcely imagine a Mother Courage unworthy of Streep's gifts, yet that's what Kushner and Wolfe have fashioned. The star keeps this almost-sure thing afloat through sheer buoyancy of will, but she'd have it easier had Kushner and Wolfe taken to heart the maxim that would have made this Streep Event a true Theatre Event: If it's Brecht, don't fix it.
Mother Courage and Her Children