Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Artist at Work: Meryl Streep’s “Theater of War”

In the summer of 2006, while The Devil Wears Prada was playing to packed movie houses across the country and Meryl Streep was enjoying the first true wave of her recent popularity that lasts to this day. It was a strange time as ever for her to appear in The Public Theater’s production of Bertolt Bercht’s epic pacifist play Mother Courage and Her Children in Central Park. Given that the play is considered a classic of German theatre, politically charged, lengthy and difficult, no less a marquee name than Ms. Streep could have compelled audiences to sit through this on a summer night when they could have been at an air-conditioned multiplex instead. Given the recent discussion and awards show presence of the delightful Streep for her current triumph in the otherwise undistinguished motion picture The Iron Lady, it’s an opportune time to see a true artist at work.

Adapted from German to English by the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner, the production assembles a dream team to bring Brecht’s vision to life. Not only is Streep the lead, whose presence guaranteed capacity crowds to a nearly four-hour pacifist play in the notorious New York summer, but the production is directed by George C. Wolfe. All three talents are tied in by Kushner’s seminal play and miniseries Angels in America, and their pedigree shows. Brecht isn’t exactly a big crowd draw like Steven Spielberg, but his name in the theatre is amongst the biggest, alongside Shakespeare, Beckett, Marlowe and Bizet. The mounting of the 2006 production was captured in the documentary Theater of War.

The documentary appears from the poster to be an intimate portrait of how Streep prepares for her role, one of the most notoriously difficult to perform on the stage. This is a role you grow into, one you earn, one in which you must have complete mastery of your craft to inhabit the role. To give you an idea of the challenge in playing Mother Courage, it’s the female equivalent of playing King Lear for male actors. What’s striking is that although we see her in rehearsal, in performance and in some interviews, and whenever she’s on stage in the production she carries the whole weight of it on her shoulders, she’s just one part of the enterprise. When asked about the collaborative and building process, she likens it to the plumbing and underlay of a building that has yet to be complete: you may want to show off how pristine it is and it will ultimately hold up the structure, but you don’t necessarily need to see the darn thing. Word.

Mother Courage and Her Children explores the psychology of the war profiteer from the inside-out, while making statements about the urge to battle in the modern era. This is what Brecht intended: to explore contemporary themes in artificial settings years removed from the present day, and drawing parallels and conclusions on his philosophical questions in the present day. Mother Courage travels through Germany during the Thirty Years’ War and makes her living selling necessities of life such as food and clothing from a covered cart. She takes along her three children – Eilif, Swiss Cheese and mute Kattrin – on her quest to profit from the war, and she welcomes it.

Brecht’s thesis, of course, is that there is no such thing as easy money and everyone must pay from the spoils of war. Indeed, Mother Courage loses all three of her children but she herself survives. It’s a long treatise, Kushner states, on how the world has nothing to offer the young and that life is a lesson in “how to eat shit and learning to pretend you like it”. This is a grim play. The reason it’s such a difficult role to play is that Mother Courage is almost never offstage for the entire three to four hours of the performance. She sings several songs about how to eat that figurative shit (the one that comes in every job or “out of your ass” as the play states), delivers long and vulgar speeches on survivalist instincts, and must somehow win the audience over before they bolt for the exit when they realize that Mother Courage and Miranda Priestly might have Ms. Streep in common, but the latter character has better accoutrements and a Park Avenue townhome.

And yet Theater of War so fully immerses you in the milieu of creating a production that the experience of creating art is never less than enthralling. There’s considerable discussion of Brecht’s history and anti-Nazi sentiments, which drove him out of Hitler’s Germany through Europe and Asia, and into the United States, where he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities for producing “radical” literature. This is truly how one learns to make a statement: not by throwing tantrums in dressing rooms, or the odious rider clauses certain “diva” singers allegedly have when they’re on tour, but by eating, living, breathing the playwright’s vision and making an artistic statement through a performance, not through one’s declaration of being an artist.

Theater of War is available to view on Netflix.