Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Theater of War
Directed by John Walter
Starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tony Kushner, Oscar Eustis, Jay Cantor, Carl Weber

At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street
December 24, 2008-January 6, 2009

Streep as Mother Courage
Playwright Brecht
The 2006 Central Park staging of Brecht’s anti-fascist parable Mother Courage and Her Children was a starry affair: Tony Kushner adapted, George C. Wolfe directed, composer Jeanne Tesori wrote the songs, and Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline headlined the cast. For Theater of War, John Walker filmed the rehearsals and interviewed the principals, and the result is a fascinating—but frustrating—look at the locus of theater and politics.

Brecht was the ultimate propagandist, but his plays were also masterworks in their own right, which kept his proselytizing from becoming oppressive. Walker wants to explore Brecht’s influence on successive generations of theater actors, directors, producers and playwrights, now confronted with the Iraq War and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which occurred as this Mother Courage was getting underway.

Walker speaks with authorities like Jay Cantor, a novelist who teaches Brecht and Marxist theory; Carl Weber, a Brecht assistant; Oskar Eustis, head of the Public Theater; Brecht’s daughter Barbara; along with Wolfe, Kushner, Streep, Tesori and others connected with the production. Streep is enlightening as she engagingly discusses her approach to acting (she allowed rehearsals to be filmed, which she never did before because, to her, recording the process is boring for audiences), and Wolfe, Kushner and Tesori interestingly discuss the production’s specifics.

But when Walker allows Kushner, Eustis and Cantor to go further, they speak in generalities about Brecht, war, Marxism and theater with precious little insight. In fact, the film’s nadir shows Kushner and Eustis riding their bikes to work in the morning, a cigar in Eustis’ mouth–a bizarre disconnect between Brecht’s socialist ideals and these privileged New Yorkers’ lives.

Barbara Brecht-Schall (who is only heard, not seen) speaks touchingly about her father and mother (the original Mother Courage, Helene Weigel) and Weber provides novel insights into and anecdotes about his former boss and mentor. For his part, Walker nicely utilizes footage of the original production starring Weigel and of Brecht himself making the members of the House Un-American Activities Committee look foolish. It’s also instructive to watch a great actress like Streep to make this complex character her very own—even during rehearsals, she’s unutterably moving.

It’s in moments like those that Theater of War overcomes its own obstacles to present Brecht as an astute observer and compelling artist.

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