Theater of War

The 2006 Central Park performance of "Mother Courage and Her Children," starring Meryl Streep, serves as the takeoff point for an exploration of Bertolt Brecht in this sophomore outing by John Walter ("How to Draw a Bunny").

The 2006 Central Park performance of “Mother Courage and Her Children,” starring Meryl Streep, serves as the takeoff point for an exploration of Bertolt Brecht in this sophomore outing by John Walter (“How to Draw a Bunny”). While Streep and others stress the significance of the antiwar play at this particular juncture of American history, the question of what Brecht now represents ultimately proves more interesting. Offering Streep fans a very rare opportunity to watch the actress’ process (which she distastefully likens to showing a house’s plumbing instead of its architecture), must-see docu for theater lovers could reach wider auds.

Besides Streep, the Public Theater’s “Mother Courage” boasted direction by George C. Wolfe, a new translation by playwright Tony Kushner, music by Jeanine Tesori and Kevin Kline in a relatively minor role. Walter cleverly traces the production’s evolution from early read-throughs to open-air dress rehearsals on Central Park’s Delacorte Theater stage. But the docu’s goals extend beyond merely supplying an annotated record of an ambitious but (according to critical consensus) flawed stab at a famously difficult-to-mount masterpiece.

Walter searches far afield to place Brecht’s play in a more dialectical context than Kushner’s somewhat awkward contemporary references to ongoing wars. While novelist Jay Cantor expounds on the Marxist theory of the alienation of labor (under shots of stagehands building sets for “Courage”), Brecht’s daughter, Barbara Brecht-Schall, casually reminisces about the playful man of the theater her father was before the family’s precipitous exit from Germany in 1933 and subsequent exile in Sweden, Norway and Finland (one step ahead of the Nazis). They came to the States in 1941, only to flee the blacklist and the House Un-American Activities six years later; Brecht-Schall and Brecht’s longtime assistant director, Carl Weber, provide amused commentary to footage of Brecht’s “brilliant performance” before the HUAC.

Weber also gifts the docu with a book illustrating, in photos, virtually every movement of the original 1949 Berlin staging of “Mother Courage,” a production Weber recalls in detail: It starred Brecht’s wife, the brilliant actress Helene Weigel. (The play was originally written in the States but was not produced until years later.)

These photos figure prominently in Walter’s docu, as he compares Brecht’s staging of the play with Wolfe’s, and consequently cuts between Weigel’s frozen poses and Streep in motion. Despite the energy and will Streep brings to her interpretation of the blindly stubborn war profiteer whose every attempt to support her children condemns them, she cannot compete with the animal cunning and sheer weight of suffering evident in every curve and gesture of Weigel’s paper-bound performance.

Yet what emerges from Walter’s docu is not a sense of failure, but a recognition that the play’s the thing, enriched by every flawed performance, perfection almost irrelevant to its cry of anguish.

Tech credits are solid.

Theater of War

  • Production: A White Buffalo Entertainment, Theater of War production. Produced by Nina Santisi. Executive producers, Jack Turner, Dany Garcia Johnson, Antonio Ortega, Emery Sheer, Leslie Jose Zigel. Directed, edited by John Walter.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W), Felix Andrew Walter; music, Robert Miller; sound, Felix Andrew Walter. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (competing), April 28, 2008. Running time: 96 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Meryl Streep, Tony Kushner, George C. Wolfe, Kevin Kline, Jay Cantor, Barbara Brecht-Schall, Oskar Eustis, Jeanine Tesori, Carl Weber. (English, German dialogue)
  • Music By: