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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN
at the Delacorte, New York

MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN
By Robert Simonson

  Meryl Streep and Austin Pendleton in Mother Courage And Her Children

It would take a star the caliber of Meryl Streep to instigate a New York revival of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage." Though the playwright's trenchant vaudeville of diatribe, song and morality play is routinely acknowledged as a masterpiece of modern drama, it's the kind of classic that audiences would rather admire from a distance than actually expose their eyes, brains and backsides to for three-plus hours.

Vaudeville is an apt word in this case, for Streep, in her very original take on Mother Courage, comes off as someone who could easily handle a long run of two-a-days. Her Lady of Wartime Retail is a queen of patter, always ready with a retort, happy to laugh at her own jokes, quick on her feet, and agile at turning any game or deal to her advantage. A female Groucho as profiteer, she could do 90 minutes in Vegas easy. It's a provocative and unusual choice-so many Courages are on the grave side, their jokes bitter rather than tart-and it adds critically needed vim to the action. In scene after scene, her energy and invention keep director George C. Wolfe's weighted production aloft, speeding the plot ahead and sending Brecht's lively political ideas ricocheting all around the Delacorte Theatre.

It's a bit terrifying, in fact, to imagine what the production would be like without her. Co-star Kevin Kline, as the opportunistic Cook, coasts through his part in an uncommitted turn. And while Courage's unfortunate children, played by Frederick Weller, Geoffrey Arend and Alexandria Wailes, do creditable work, none come near Streep's level.

As for the folks steering this warship, Wolfe and Tony Kushner (who did the adaptation) don't complement one another-they indulge each other. They are artistic co-dependents. While often an effective-enough Big Idea man, Wolfe has never been a particularly subtle craftsman. He favor bold strokes. Pair him off with ideologue playwright like Kushner (who, as he has done in past adaptations of other playwrights' work, introduces contemporary political agendas into the script to jarring effect) and the impact is about the same as Khrushchev pounding his shoe on a desk at the UN. Wolfe takes Kushner's artistic italics and puts them in boldface. It's all so unnecessary. Audiences can surely relate Brecht's timeless indictment of war and its parasites to the Bush administration's current military misadventures without Kushner connecting the dots with knee-jerk applause lines, or Wolfe's piling on of the wooden soldiers or cameo-casting of a jeep.

Still, Kushner and Wolfe fashion as many effective sequences as they do lumbering broadsides. The scene which includes "The Song of the Great Capitulation" is so grippingly played and sung that is actually becomes what it ought to be-the thematic centerpiece of the production. And a long book scene in which Austin Pendleton's vacillating Chaplin tried to coax Courage into marriage is an engaging piece of comic business, spotlighting a brief, but splendid, comic symbiosis between the two actors. Moreover, to everyone's credit, the story more or less holds the viewer until the end. Even when the staging teeters at times, superhuman Streep is there to set it right. And why not? Courage is used to putting across a sale of less-than-to-quality goods.

 

 


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