This summer's most eagerly awaited cultural and theatrical event was The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park production of Bertolt's Brecht's anti-war classic Mother Courage and Her Children. Once it was announced that Meryl Streep would play the role of Mother Courage, theater lovers hungry to see a modern classic and those eager to see one of our greatest actresses live on stage were contemplating the day-long waits on lines to get their hands on the free tickets.
The Public Theater should be applauded for producing Brecht's work in an environment where theatrical success is measured by dollars and cents. Brecht is not easy on audiences who usually shy away from his works unless there is star power behind them. It was great to witness a theatrical event that celebrates the artistic. Yes, we came to the Delecorte Theatre in Central Park to see Meryl Streep, but we left having had the opportunity to see a rarely produced play that held a mirror up to ourselves and society.
Written in 1939, Brecht's play exposed the folly and tragedy of a Europe heading into World War II through the journey of Mother Courage. Mother Courage lives and sells wares out of a wagon traveling across Europe during the Thirty Years War. Mother Courage is a survivor and needs the continuing battles to sell her merchandise to support herself while trying to protect her children from the war. Mother Courage is clearly a symbol of the elements in our society and government that profit from war. Director George C. Wolfe has performed a small theatrical miracle with his ability to create a Mother Courage who is not only a symbol or a devise for Brechtian theatrics, but a vibrant and human character that an audience can feel for and identify with. The character of Mother Courage not only carries the play on her shoulders, but she also escorts the audience into her world for the play's running time of three hours.
A greater theatrical miracle occurs in Meryl Streep's comic, tragic, and thrilling performance. Streep gives an amazing performance as brave and complex as the character she portrays. Streep also gets to sing in Mother Courage. She closes Act 1, with "The Song of the Great Capitulation," which is the dramatic highlight of her performance. Although Streep carries the evening, there are other solid performances. The brilliant actor Kevin Kline brings a warmth and humor to the role of "the cook." Kline's rendition of the "Solomon Song" near the conclusion of the play is dark, powerful, and chilling. Alexandra Wailes who portrays one of the children, Kattrin, who is mute and emotionally damaged from the wars, gives a subtle and touching performance that brings an emotional reality to the relationship between Mother Courage and her daughter.
The Public Theater has contributed a great theatrical service with Mother Courage and other works focusing on war this season. Shakespeare's Macbeth opened the summer season at The Delacort with Liev Schreiber portraying Macbeth. The Public also produced at the main theater the critically acclaimed production of David Hare's STUFF HAPPENS, which examines the behind the scenes discussions of Bush, Rice, and Powell as the United States headed into war with Iraq. It is admirable when theatre companies reflect out times and produce work that examines the conflicts of our nation. It is more than admirable when a company can create work that entertains us and touches our hearts as well.
For more information on The Public Theater and its upcoming season, go to www.pubtheatre.org.