Nobody bristles and barks orders, but a military aura governs the rehearsal room of “A Civil War Christmas” at Baltimore’s Center Stage. A snare drum raps out a martial beat; actors move in crisp lines and turn at sharp angles. Then the troops pause for guidelines coolly mapped out by a coterie of generals: director Rebecca Taichman, choreographer Liz Lerman and Lerman’s associate choreographer, Paloma McGregor.
A massive battle plan is tacked high on the rehearsal room wall, a 60-scene storyboard to help everyone keep the action straight. The epic tale, subtitled “An American Musical Celebration,” uses 11 actors to play dozens of figures – Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, Walt Whitman, seamstress Elizabeth Keckley, plus soldier and civilian characters whom Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel created. Taichman and Vogel have lost count of how many characters flow through the piece.
“It’s an enormous interweaving of stories,” Taichman says. Vogel adds that she sorted through 500 carols and period songs for her play.
The staging is painstaking, then, as the story, set in December 1864, sweeps across race and class – “I want our holiday tale to be inclusive,” Vogel says – and through a Washington landscape that will be familiar to audiences here. Rehearsing, Nicole Lewis, playing a black woman named Hannah whose child is missing, knocks on a door. She’s at the White House. She’s told she’s at the wrong entrance.
Then come the sound of horse hooves, made by an actress at one of the two tables filled with sound-effects equipment. (The performers are creating the show’s soundscape, including the music for familiar carols and period songs; many play instruments.) An actor narrates the swift change of scene:
“And at that moment, on the outskirts of town,” he announces, as Booth and two conspirators step forward.
If Taichman’s approach to this ambitious work demands everything from layers of homemade sound to a deluxe choreography team, for Vogel, simply writing “A Civil War Christmas” must have felt like the Hundred Years’ War. The title became public in 1998, when Molly Smith was taking over as artistic director at Arena Stage and bringing her longtime friend and colleague Vogel on board as an artistic associate and commissioned playwright. Vogel was a big “get,” for in 1998 she won a Pulitzer Prize for “How I Learned to Drive.”
Somehow, though, the commissioned project never came off. Arena announced “A Civil War Christmas” for 2006, but it was scratched six months before its scheduled opening. Vogel says she withdrew the play, citing the hassles of her “day job” – for years she ran the playwriting program at Brown University – and concluding that Arena in 2006 was “not the right time or the right place.”
“Let’s just say that Arena Stage and I have had different ideas on new-play process,” Vogel says. “So I sought other homes.”
The play premiered at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theater in 2008, and the New York Times blessed it with a rave review. “An ambitious, richly detailed and beautifully mounted new seasonal offer,” went the report. “The rare holiday entertainment that brings intellectual nourishment as much as it entertains.”
Since then it’s made the regional rounds, receiving its Manhattan debut last year at the New York Theatre Workshop just as Georgetown University was producing it here. Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah admired it in New York, and so did managing director Stephen Richard, Arena’s executive director from 1991 to 2008. Richard recalls falling in love with the play during a workshop presentation long ago at Arena.
“It was as rough as could be, but it was just so full of promise,” Richard says. “And it had Paula’s reverence for the landscape and the history.”
That reverence seems native to Vogel. Born in Washington in 1951 and raised in suburban Maryland, she researched with such zeal that she eventually decided, “If I read any more history, I’m going to become a reenactor.”
She’s talking by phone from her home in Providence, R.I., her voice filling a conference room at Center Stage via speakerphone, where Taichman sits in.
“A Christmas Carol” and “Nicholas Nickleby” were both in mind as Vogel fashioned her own holiday tapestry. “I love that Dickens has all these strands he weaves together,” Vogel says. “And quite frankly right now in American entertainment, it’s very hard to do that onstage. We put it on cable television, in episodic TV writing. In the 21st century, that’s where our 19th-century novel is.”
Taichman, known in Washington for sharp productions of new works (“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and “A Clean House” at Woolly Mammoth) and bold takes on classics (“Taming of the Shrew” and “Twelfth Night” for the Shakespeare Theatre Company), chimes in about the “gestural vocabulary” that Lerman and McGregor are supplying.
“Not dance sequences,” she explains, but movement to illustrate situations and suggest places as the story hurtles from locale to locale.
“I can’t do period dances,” Lerman recalls telling Taichman when the director invited her into the process.Lerman is the MacArthur “genius” grant recipient known for devising original dance works using people of all ages.
McGregor (who has danced with Lerman’s troupe and with Urban Bush Women, among others) describes the labyrinth of “Civil War” transitions and the flood of character changes as “an exciting set of questions and puzzles.”
An example: Lerman mentions a bit featuring a sick soldier. She guided the actor to collapse his spine, creating a slouching posture of illness that forced him to speak from a weakened position.
Similarly, McGregor describes concepts like “the grid” — a network of invisible pathways that the actors will stick to — and “flocking,” in which a group of performers shift direction en masse by taking a cue from only one of them. Just like birds.
“It’s not ‘steps’,” Lerman says of how she works. “I should have a T-shirt: ‘Teach The World It’s Not About the Steps.’”
Lerman is already working on her own piece for the ambitious National Civil War Project that will unfold in four regions next year, with Center Stage and Arena as two of the hubs. Her “Healing Wars” is slated for June at Arena.
“I thought it’d be interesting to spend time in someone else’s Civil War,” Lerman says of this alliance with Taichman and Vogel. It has given her a bit of culture shock: The theater pace is fast, and she and McGregor seldom work from a script. They cackle at the mention of that 60-page storyboard.
“In the dance world, I think I’m considered quite narrative, actually,” Lerman says. “Whereas in this world I’m just so abstract. I might set movement and text together and let it oscillate, but Rebecca is really good at getting a particular emotion into it. She specifies. It’s one of the things I’m going to take away and learn from.”
This is why Vogel rhapsodically compares this latest staging of her long-aborning play to “seeing the other side of the moon.” “A Civil War Christmas” is the biggest thing she’s ever done, a companion piece to “The Long Christmas Ride Home,” a grim family play that used puppets. (The Studio Theatre produced it here in 2006.) And she’s continuing to go big, at least by the meager modern stage standards that make her chafe. Her upcoming “God of Vengeance” is being written for seven actors, and “Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq” will need a company of 10. Both are projects with Taichman.
“This is me knowing that it’s a good thing to flex that particular muscle,” says Vogel, surely one of the deans of American playwriting, “before I go back to writing plays for two characters and three stools.”
by Paula Vogel. Wednesday through Dec. 22 at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert St., Baltimore, Md., 21202. Call 410-332-0033 or visit centerstage.org.