When 'Courage' Is Not Enough, Even for Streep

Meryl Streep (with Kevin Kline) is a forceful presence in
Meryl Streep (with Kevin Kline) is a forceful presence in "Mother Courage," but the production, staged in New York's Central Park, lacks bite. (By Michal Daniel -- Public Theater Via Associated Press)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

NEW YORK -- All long wars are alike. The one dragging on and on between the Swedes and the Poles in Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" is a case in point: Nobody seems to remember what the carnage is for.

"But God told our king to fight," the Swedish general's cook, played by Kevin Kline, explains to Mother Courage, portrayed by the indefatigable Meryl Streep. "He's always had his principles, our king, and with his clear conscience he doesn't get depressed."

The words -- a new translation by Tony Kushner of Brecht's 1941 play -- hang heavy with irony over the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where the free, open-air production runs through Sept. 3. The audience titters appreciatively at lines that erupt like little grenades tossed squarely at a contemporary American quagmire.

Direct satirical hits, however, are scored only very sporadically in this high-profile, low-impact production. As directed by George C. Wolfe, the theatrically adventurous Brecht comes across as surprisingly toothless. The wait for something to catch fire onstage proves as futile as hanging around the box office hoping for last-minute seats.

A "Mother Courage" ticket is the sizzling Manhattan accessory of the moment chiefly because of the access it provides to Streep, the rarest of exotic theater birds. Any sighting sends theatergoers into a tizzy. Her last New York stage appearance -- which ended a decades-long drought -- was another starry Shakespeare in the Park event, a summer 2001 revival of Chekhov's "The Sea Gull" with Kline, John Goodman, Natalie Portman, Marcia Gay Harden and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Like "Mother Courage," the Mike Nichols-staged "Sea Gull" was an erratic exercise in which the big-name actors never seemed to be in the same century, let alone on the same page. In both productions, though, Streep has served as industrial-strength acting glue, holding things together by sheer force of personality and will.

It also must be noted that Streep is not ideally cast as Mother Courage. As a wary profiteer, halfway between paragon and parasite, she drags a wagon -- as well as her children -- across the battlefields of Poland, selling this and that to the Swedish soldiers. In a cap tilted rakishly to one side, Streep ably embodies Courage's steely nature, her talent for surviving at any cost. But the character's softer contours aren't clearly defined here, so the contradictions at the heart of the drama do not register. Courage's sacrifices make little impression in Streep's snappish portrayal, as tough and sere as the dry little cough of a laugh she effects.

Brecht's fable -- interspersed with lyrics set to new music by Jeanine Tesori, Kushner's partner on "Caroline, or Change" -- is not so much an antiwar tract as it is a portrait of the human capacity to adapt, to bear and metabolize suffering. Over the course of the play, Courage's children will be consumed by the war off which their mother makes a living: Eilif (Frederick Weller) turns soldier and war criminal, and Swiss Cheese (Geoffrey Arend) is captured and executed. In the tale's one selfless act, Courage's third child, Kattrin (Alexandria Wailes), a mute, is shot as she sounds a warning to a town under siege.

Those events should radiate some cumulative power, yet they unfold as mere sideshow calumnies in a dispiriting slog to the curtain calls.

In something of a departure from orthodoxy, the lyrics are not so much spoke-sung as performed as outright musical numbers. A few, especially the finale, feel overproduced. Only in Streep's appealing "Ballad of Mother Courage" and Kline's rendition of "The Song of Solomon" is there a real affinity for Brecht's trademark style of "songspiel."

Around Courage and her totemic wagon, Wolfe conjures a physical realm that's part Brecht and part Audie Murphy. Riccardo Hernandez's rustic set features elements of Brechtian transparency: An actor turns an exposed pulley, for example, to propel the turntable set. The set also provides some desultory war-movie effects, such as the occasional blazing building or exploding artillery shell.

Those, sad to say, are about the most startling ingredients that Wolfe comes up with in three hours of circuitous storytelling.

In his scenes with Streep, Kline is a complete gentleman: His low-key performance in no way tries to compete with hers (although it also doesn't hint much at any of the cook's darker impulses). As the morally blinded minister whose oratory inspires conscripts to fight to the death, Austin Pendleton is all sputter and not much bite. Weller is fine as Eilif, but some of the less-experienced actors in the cast appear to have gotten fine-arts degrees in yelling.

The state of the world certainly justifies another visit with "Mother Courage." And any evening with Streep is, by its nature, an occasion. But the work should consistently draw one's eye to something more compelling than the clock.

Mother Courage and Her Children, by Bertolt Brecht. Translated by Tony Kushner. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Costumes, Marina Draghici; lighting, Paul Gallo; sound, Acme Sound Partners; projections, Batwin and Robin Productions; music director, Kimberly Grigsby. With Michael Izquierdo, Jenifer Lewis. About three hours. Through Sept. 3 at Delacorte Theater, Central Park. Tickets are free and available on day of performance at the Delacorte after 1 p.m. Call 212-260-2400 or visit .

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