Review: Theater of War

It’s a a functional gift to all those people who stood in line, in vain, trying to catch a performance of Mother Courage and Her Children.

Theater of War
Photo: White Buffalo Entertainment

At some point in John Walter’s documentary Theater of War (a functional gift to all those people who stood in line, in vain, trying to catch a performance of the New York Public Theater’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children), Meryl Streep takes exception to the idea of documenting the behind-the-scenes toil. “Process,” she expostulates, “looks like bad acting. Process is not anything you should let anybody see. Because it’s like ‘Show me your new building,’ and we show you the plumbing and the sewer line, which you may be very proud of and is going to hold the building together ultimately. But it’s not what you want to show people.” Hate to say she told you so. Neither Streep’s as-yet-unpolished performance nor the entire construction of this particular production of Bertolt Brecht’s celebrated play are done much favor by this doc’s unedifying attempt to shoot the moon. Walter tries not only to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle spirit of a zeitgeisty staging in its formative state, but also tries to enrich it with a crib-notes portrait of the original production, Brecht’s personal history, the specter of Nazism, the legacy of the Hollywood Ten, the pallid political mood of Bush II America, and the nature of motherhood. It’s almost as though Walter is trying to back up one commentator’s point that Mother Courage is the finest theatrical work of the 20th century by connecting it thematically to basically everything else that happened in the 20th century, which isn’t necessarily advisable when Brecht purposefully decontextualized his work, divorcing it from contemporary events and instead setting it during the Thirty Years War. Here, amid much hemming and hawing by eggheads about the urban proletariat (juxtaposed with extraordinarily poor taste against images of theater techies building sets and making outdated cars run again), the most amusing moment of political commentary comes from the glimpse of one actor in rehearsal sporting, in true “politics is theater” fashion, a “Stewart/Colbert ‘08” shirt.

 Cast: Barbara Brecht-Schall, Jay Cantor, Oskar Eustis, Kevin Kline, Tony Kushner, Meryl Streep, Carl Weber, George C. Wolfe, Jeanine Tesori  Director: John Walter  Distributor: White Buffalo Entertainment  Running Time: 95 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2008  Buy: Video

Eric Henderson

Eric Henderson is the web content manager for WCCO-TV. His writing has also appeared in City Pages.

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