The Siegel Column

5 Stars: Meryl Streep, 2 ½ Stars: Mother Courage and Her Children

For years to come, people will talk about Meryl Streep's performance in Mother Courage. They won't talk about the show, itself, very much – except to say that it was a great disappointment. So much wasted talent, not the least of which is the talent of Bertolt Brecht who found his play not so much newly translated by Tony Kushner as hijacked. George C. Wolfe didn't help much; his direction is more often fussy when it needs to be dynamic. But then there is Meryl Streep giving a performance of volcanic proportion. Every one of her emotional explosions delivers a shock of deeply honest, complicated life and her fiery speeches, like burning lava, sear everything in their path. It isn't this production. It's her. She is that remarkable. Simply put, who cares if the play is a dud? You've got to see this performance!

The character of Mother Courage is extraordinarily complicated; it takes a gifted actress to play her well. Brecht created a human being pumped full of contradictions, making her one of the theater's most realistically tragic heroines. She is, at once, a fierce protector of her three quickly maturing children even as she drags them into constant peril. She is a war profiteer and its victim, and a tantalizing combination of cynic and romantic. Using the seventeenth century's 30 Years' War as the backdrop, Brecht saw the character of Mother Courage as a metaphor condemning free enterprise, but he made her so compelling that we come away pitying her tragic fate while also admiring her tenacious will to survive. In other words, she transcends metaphor – especially when she is played by an actress like Streep – to become a living, breathing woman of extraordinary passion.

Tony Kushner's new translation and George C. Wolfe's direction tend to show their worst elements in scenes that thankfully never undermine Streep's performance. From the text, pandering political comments come out of the mouths of other actors, most notable among them being Kevin Kline. The direction turns sour in larger group scenes like the decision to use the back of the set as a movie screen to show war footage during the finale in order to hammer home the play's resonance with the present. Note to Mr. Wolfe: the audience ain't that dumb. We get it!

Ironically, little Jean Cocteau Repertory put on a shoestring production of Mother Courage last season at the Bouwerie Lane Theater and in some ways their production was fundamentally more satisfying. Okay, they didn't have the towering performance of Meryl Streep, but Lorinda Lisitza was pretty amazing in her own right and a couple of the other actors in that production were just as effective as their Delacorte counterparts. Hey, we even liked the wagon better at the Jean Cocteau; it was more realistic. All that being said, we would never have recommended that people get in line for tickets the night before for the production at at the Bouwerie Lane. We wouldn't recommend that you do it for the production in Central Park, either, but you shouldn't hesitate doing it to see Meryl Streep.

4 Stars: The Fantasticks

No, we're not going to tell you the plot. Aren't you relieved? We will tell you that this delicious musical fable has been brought back to life – "revived" would be the appropriate term – in a loving recreation of the original production, complete not only to matching the physical dimensions of the Sullivan Street Playhouse stage, but also the shape of the audience seating space.

After recently concluding its historic forty-two year run, it's not unreasonable to wonder if this revival of The Fantasticks is really necessary. We say this with full recognition that the short-anticipated revival of Le Miz will soon be storming the Broadway barricades. What's up with this? What does this portend? It might represent a monumental paucity of imagination. It might also suggest that the shelf-life for nostalgia is getting shorter and shorter - which would be bad news for Joe Franklin. But we'll posit yet another (one hopes) more positive point of view: Tony Randall didn't fail after all. Business forces are naturally creating a sort of National Actors Theater for Musicals in the sense that classic shows will always (or almost always) be with us. Think, if you will, how many generations of actors have cut their teeth on The Fantasticks and Le Miz? For thousands of actors around the country, these shows have already become our National Actors Theater.

Now, as for this brand new production of The Fantasticks, one would have hoped it would have been just a little bit more stellar. Burke Moses is a competent El Gallo but he has neither the sexual danger nor the devilish sense of fun (at least not in sufficient quantity) to make you feel as if there is more at stake in the show. Imagine the production with someone like Douglas Sills or Raul Esparza as El Gallo and you'll get the picture.

It's great to see Tom Jones as the old actor, and speaking of old actors, Martin Vidnovic is sensational as the father of the girl. Even as recently as ten years ago, he would have made a smashing El Gallo. The rest of the cast is every bit as good as the show demands. But the best part about it is, assuming this production will be running for years (if not decades) to come, one can imagine that there will be performers passing through these quintessential musical theatre roles – in this unofficial national actors theater – who will burnish their skills here on their way to stardom.

Quick Takes on The Fringe

One of the things we've learned from covering The Fringe this last number of years is that it isn't so much the shows that get discovered, it's the actors. Oh, sure, the institution needs its Urinetown to emerge every year or two to give everyone hope, but in the trenches the discoveries tend to be smaller but no less significant. We're going to take this opportunity, therefore, to single out several individuals who stood out in this year's Fringe. As far as we're concerned, at The Fringe the player – not the play – is the thing ...

It's A Hit is a musical comedy murder mystery set back stage in a Broadway theater that roots itself in what is now a bonafide genre called "Derivative." The more you know about the theater and its history – past and present – the more you will be in on the joke. For instance, the detective investigating the murder(s) is named Krupke. The music is catchy and the lyrics are oftentimes clever, but it feels oh so familiar. But even if the show goes no further, Joanna Glushak will. She's a brassy diva in the Alix Korey tradition; she's naturally funny with great pipes and knows how to use ‘em. She's the takeaway.

Mary Berry Presents: The Life of Mary Berry is a rather amusing bit of whimsy that starts poorly but gets increasingly funny as it goes along largely thanks to the inspired comic performance of Adam Farabee as Berry Berry, Mary's almost normal kid brother. This young actor manages to give a sly, understated performance in a show that is nothing if not over-the-top. Of course, sly and understated are relative in a comedy as outlandishly unreal as Mary Berry, but we'll still stand by this description and keep an eye out for Farabee's next role.

One of The Fringe's most highly touted musicals is Perfect Harmony. The night we saw the show we spotted several big shot producers in the audience. We don't know what they saw, but we came away thinking this was nowhere near "perfect." Amusing, yes. Some of the singing was sweet, indeed. But the book was fundamentally sophomoric – and not in a good way. But what a performance young David Barlow gives as a singing nerd. He's not only hilarious; he's got a voice that can seemingly do anything. This guy put himself on the map with his performance.

We saw Faded by Robert Dominguez at another festival and we were glad to catch up to it again at The Fringe. We liked it when we saw it before and liked it even more this time around; it was tighter, faster, and shorter. An expose of tabloid journalism, it has plenty of humor and some snappy dialogue. All the players seemed perfect for their parts, but none as ideal as John Cannatella who essayed the role of a tough old character with a secret to sell. He seemed like someone heaven-sent from Central Casting. He was perfect for the part and we couldn't take our eyes off of him. Well done!

Crisp and smart, The Infliction of Cruelty is one of the few Fringe plays we saw this year that really felt like a professionally produced show. The script runs a little heavy with its characters spouting quotations, showing off both their own (and the authors') erudition, but that's a minor quibble. The plot has one too many "oops, I overheard your big secret at the open door" scenes, which is a more substantial quibble, but the polish of the piece and its genuinely original revenge premise far outweighs this problem, as well.

Not only did we like the play and the direction, we were very impressed with a couple of the actors. Justin Barrett as the oldest brother (and the leader) of this clan of intellectually gifted siblings gives a stunningly dark and brooding performance. The power he exudes pulls your attention to him throughout the play. Unexpectedly impressive is Aimee DeShayes in the role of the youngest sibling's girlfriend. We say unexpected because she makes something of what should be the play's least expressive role. Nice when that happens. And it's even nicer to find so many of these nuggets of talent throughout The Fringe.

Barbara and Scott Siegel