August 23, 2006
Streep takes on “Mother” of challenging roles
By Alexis Greene
NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - In the summer of Meryl
Streep, audiences have watched this extraordinary actress
transform from stylish bitch ("The Devil Wears Prada") to
blowsy radio singer ("A Prairie Home Companion").
wrestle fiercely, if not always successfully, with that
demanding figure of both heroism and folly, the title character
in Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children."
Written in 1939, when Germany was warmongering and Brecht
had departed his native country for safer climes, "Mother
Courage" always has challenged actors and directors. Brecht
famously did not want audiences to sympathize with Courage, who
yokes her three children to a wagon and treks across 17th
century Europe during wartime, selling goods to armies at the
expense of her children's lives.
But even when Brecht directed the legendary 1949 production
at East Germany's Berliner Ensemble -- with his wife Helene
Weigel playing Courage supposedly as the playwright intended --
audiences responded positively to this mother who haggles while
her children die.
In the Public Theater's outdoor production, under the
direction of George C. Wolfe, Streep is an unusually frisky
Courage. When she makes her entrance sitting on the wagon, she
looks almost chic, what with a cap perched to one side on her
head and a tightly cinched jacket showing off her figure. This
is a vivacious Courage, who flirts with the Cook (Kevin Kline)
and tosses around the cynical lines in Tony Kushner's vibrant
translation as though this were light comedy instead of
Indeed, at times there's something frenetic about Streep's
performance, as if she felt required to keep this
three-hour-plus production moving along all by herself.
At other times she is startling. When Courage's mute
daughter, Kattrin (the excellent Alexandria Wailes), is killed,
Streep sings and keens sorrowfully over the girl's outstretched
body. Brecht's Courage might be a selfish fool, but in Streep's
performance she also is a suffering mother.
As for the production that surrounds Streep, it is, in a
word, crowded. Working with wood and metal, designer Riccardo
Hernandez has built a kind of false proscenium arch, behind
which rise wooden structures, a kind of tent sheltering the
orchestra, and the burned shards of brick walls. There hardly
is room for the 24-member cast or for Courage's wagon, which
should be a production's strongest image.
But Wolfe always has had trouble with simplicity. He stages
Brecht's spare, episodic scenes as though they were an
elaborate, continuous drama, filled with sound and fury.
Wolfe can't simply have Kattrin collapse on a rooftop; he
must lower her slowly to the stage floor, in a kind of sling.
At the end, he can't leave us with Courage, alone now,
harnessing herself to the wagon and following the next war; he
must fill the stage with soldiers who shoot each other to the
But then, perhaps in this media-drenched age, that is the
only image we understand.
Mother Courage: Meryl Streep
Eilif: Frederick Weller
Swiss Cheese: Geoffrey Arend
Kattrin: Alexandria Wailes
Cook: Kevin Kline
Chaplain: Austin Pendleton
Yvette: Jenifer Lewis
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht; Translator: Tony Kushner;
Original music: Jeanine Tesori; Director: George C. Wolfe; Set
designer: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume designer: Marina
Draghici; Lighting designer: Paul Gallo; Sound designer: Acme
Sound Partners; Projection: Batwin + Robin Prods.