Monday, August 21, 2006

Welcome wagon

I feel lucky to live in a town where I can see Meryl Streep on stage. Not only that, but in a version of Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children adapted by Tony Kushner and directed by George C. Wolfe, with new music by Jeanine Tesori (the team behind the wonderful Caroline, or Change). The Sheila and I were lucky to have seats in the fourth row, center, so we got to see La Streep in action from real close. Watching her was like watching a virtuoso musician in full control of her instrument.

I used to be completely obsessed with Streep at the beginning of her film career: The Seduction of Joe Tynan, with Alan Alda; Manhattan, of course; another strong-willed woman depicted as selfish and manipulative in Kramer vs. Kramer; and above all The Deer Hunter and The French Lieutenant Woman. My infatuation ended with Sophie's Choice: Streep wasn't acting anymore, she was acting—all tics (check out how she uses the sideway glance to indicate pretty much anything) and affectations. It was downhill from there: Out of Africa, Ironweed and A Cry in the Dark, the latter marking the beginning of the Accent Years.

A trilogy of sorts in which Streep fully unleashed her hitherto disguised comic chops stood out: She-Devil, Postcards from the Edge and Death Becomes Her (the 1980s version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane). Alas, the reinvention they seemed to augur didn't take, and Streep spent the 1990s playing the ideal suffering mom—especially when fighting back (The River Wild)—and hiding behind spot-on accents (The Bridges of Madison County, Dancing at Lughnasa). It was as if part of her wanted to be the ideal Yankee mom, and another part negated her blond all-American-ness. By then, I had given up on her.

It took Charlie Kaufman to return her to greatness: First in Adaptation, then, in 2005, with his live radio play Hope Leaves the Theater, in which Streep gleefully skewered her own image as a grande dame of the stage. A few months later, she brought the house down at the Public Theater's 50th-anniversary celebration when she sang "Sodomy" from Hair.

This production of Mother Courage has a lot going for it, even when Wolfe's staging feels muddled, even when Kushner gets carried away and keeps padding the original text so that the show lasts over three hours. But what really makes it is Streep: She's on stage the entire time and you can't take your eyes away from her. Who else could have done this role at this point? Stockard Channing maybe. Why not Patti LuPone? Any suggestions, dear readers?

1 comment:

Joan said...

I saw the play seated way up on the left so I can only imagine what being fourth row center was like for Streep's Act I showstopper. Damn.

I can't think of anyone other than Streep who could have handled the role. But I do feel that, for all his flaws here, nobody could have brought this into the 21st century better than Kushner. Nobody else is tough enough to do mass audience political theater like him.

I've been on a HAIR tear lately, listening to the soundtrack I know mostly from heart, and am jealous that a 50th-anniversary Public acknowledgment of it came & went without my realizing it.