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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Delacorte

By Mark Blankenship

  Meryl Streep in Mother Courage And Her Children

Meryl Streep's performance in "Mother Courage and Her Children" is so perfectly Brechtian, so aware of what the script demands from a lead actress, that it opens a window onto the play itself.

Streep's take on Mother Courage-a woman who loses her children to war but sells trinkets to soldiers all the same-rests in what Brecht called the gestus. The word embodies a complex theory of acting and writing, but in part, it refers to how an actor's choices reveal the dramatic function of a scene. It is a necessarily unrealistic notion.  Say a performer plays a general who keeps punching the air with his fist: That action reminds us he is not a real person who needs our sympathy. Instead, he's an obvious symbol, and we must decide how he functions in the play's larger argument.

For her part, Streep chooses two primary actions to define her role, and they contradict one another.  First, there's her laugh. It repeatedly explodes at the end of a line, three clipped chuckles like a machine gun firing huh-huh-huh. And indeed, the laugh is a weapon. It's a low-pitched attack on anyone who thinks Courage is soft.

Gruffness shows everywhere, from Streep's wide-legged stride to her clumsy attempts to stroke her daughter's hair. But that masculine air might surround any woman who survives by dragging a wagon full of undershirts across a battlefield. The mirthless laugh emerges to prove that Courage is not just butch. She's stony.

How appropriate. As depicted in Tony Kushner's vivid, foul-mouthed translation, Courage constantly chooses profits over feelings. Streep's incessant chuckling says this cold commitment to her business has become an automatic response. We're invited to wonder how she got that way.

We also can wonder if she's faking. Because as often as she laughs, Streep pulls at her nose. It's a quick motion, and it announces Courage is suppressing an emotion. When the army tries to recruit her son, for instance, she fights to distract the officers with talk of belt buckles. But while she's pushing her product, the nose gets tugged. Streep tells us that the woman cannot display her fear of losing a child. Again, we're invited to question. Why can't she just express herself? What would she lose if she did?

And how, it's worth wondering, do we accept a character who contradicts herself so much? Streep plays emptiness and vulnerability with equal commitment. Her Mother Courage somehow has two hearts-one bleeding, one frozen-at the same time.

Both hearts are true. Brecht's play states the unsettling fact that war makes us more and less human at the same time-it heightens our agony, and it makes us hard. Likewise, Streep marries greed with misery. By never relinquishing either half of her performance, she makes Mother Courage a figure who cannot be quickly understood. We are left to reconcile that pitifully pulled nose with that awful laugh. And to do that, we must clarify our feelings about the war that tears through the play.



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