With a new translation by Tony Kushner, stunning music by Jeanine Tesori, taut and focused direction by George C. Wolfe, and a history-making performance by Meryl Streep in the title role, the Public Theater’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” is truly thrilling theater that is more than worth the overnight campouts people are staging to get the free, albeit scarce, tickets.
Starting with Kushner’s translation, the production is designed and executed as populist political theater that is neither polemical nor overly reverential of Brecht but is instead a gripping story forcefully and passionately told. Kushner has tuned this play to contemporary ears, and while I was expecting another long slog through the Thirty Years’ War with a profiteering Mother Courage, I got an edge-of-the-seat action movie, a tale of war, survival, amorality, and corruption on very human terms.
Ironically, in eschewing the intellectual in favor of the viscerally human, “Mother Courage” has never made as powerful a political statement. In decades of seeing various productions of Brecht, I have never been so moved or laughed so roundly, largely because the stories have never been told so well. The obvious relevance of “Mother Courage” to our current Iraqi situation and the terrifying prospect of an expanded war in the Middle East cannot be lost on the audience. It is chilling, for instance, as hostilities about to break out again, to hear Mother Courage say derisively, “People still believe in what they can’t see.” At the same time her relentless money-grubbing and self-absorption eerily mirror the Bush administration’s implicit directive to the country to go about its business while the politicos foist spin on the nation to distract us from the mounting body counts. If Kushner is sometimes a bit heavy handed in driving these points home, the obviousness of the social criticism is consistent with Brecht’s writing, and we cannot be reminded often enough that real death is the consequence of the deadly, cynical fantasies of those in power.
“Mother Courage” however is more than just the story of one war, or all wars. It is also the poetic and philosophical exploration of man’s drive to survive and the revelation that when faced with survival versus the artificial constructs of morality or social order, survival will always be the dominant impulse. Mother Courage can lose everything and may even grieve about it, but her survival is always paramount. It is in the last image of her pulling her cart alone through the battlefield littered with bodies that we must also confront our own corruption and our basest nature laid bare. The inescapable horror of our natures and the devastation it wreaks leave one at once breathless and exhilarated in the final moments of this production.
Now, as to Meryl Streep, since she is the reason people are flocking to the Park. She gives a performance of complexity and depth that is a stunning mass of contradictions. She is at once the loving mother who will kill for her children and the meek merchant subservient to the presiding authority. One moment aggressively boastful and another rapt with love at hearing her son in the next room, Streep gives us the range of the character that is magnificent. There isn’t a moment that isn’t realized and real from beginning to end—and she is onstage virtually throughout.
Moments like “The Song of the Great Capitulation” that ends the first act will be indelibly burned into the theatrical memory of anyone who sees it, as she gives us in just a few moments the entire experience of Mother Courage as woman and survivalist. Like Patti LuPone in “Sweeney Todd,” she is an actress at the top of her game giving the performance of a lifetime.
Streep is not alone. The extraordinary ensemble works beautifully together. Kevin Kline shines as Cook in “The Song of Solomon,” one of the many high points in the second act. Alexandria Wailes is remarkable as Kattrin, the tragically romantic, mute daughter. Austin Pendleton gives a strong performance as Chaplain, hiding his faith when necessary, proclaiming it only when he is at no risk. Jennifer Lewis is dynamic as the prostitute Yvette, though one wonders whether she could have gone beyond the conventional attitudes of the contemporary black woman that seem to be a comic mainstay in entertainment right now. Of course, all the characters are allegorical, but in his directing, Wolfe has found their humanity, which gives the production an immediacy that is gripping. Allegory, he shows, need not be an intellectual enterprise alone.
Ricardo Hernández has designed the versatile unit set, and Paul Gallo’s lighting is inspired. Jeanine Tesori’s music is just about perfect with harmonics that recall Brecht’s German origins and the work Kurt Weill while being fresh and new and eminently singable.
Without a star of Streep’s magnitude in the title role, it’s doubtful that people would be clamoring for tickets to an old Brecht play. But neither Streep, the Public, nor anyone involved with this production has chosen to coast on fame. Like Mother Courage, they haven’t shirked from hard work, and in the process have ensured the survival and reignited the relevance of a play that could too easily be lost to obscurity.