Even the smallest theatrical production can present logistical nightmares. “Mother Courage and Her Children” is no small theatrical production.
An ambitious reimagining of Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 cautionary tale about the hazards of Nazis and Fascists, Arena Stage’s adaptation — boasting 13 new songs performed by a cast of 17 actor-musicians kick-stepping across the stage with tambourines, accordions, tubas and drums — stars Oscar nominee Kathleen Turner in her singing debut. The play is among the biggest of Arena’s season, having first been envisioned by artistic director Molly Smith more than a year ago.
Here’s how Arena Stage put the huge production together.
Smith and Turner worked together last year on “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins” and knew they wanted to collaborate again. The only question: Which play? The answer was “Mother Courage,” a work that comes with a pedigree (“the greatest anti-war play,” Smith says) but also some baggage. For some, Brecht’s devices can feel alienating. His plays suck the audience into a scene, only to push them away with a reminder that this new world is all a stage and that our new friends are just actors. (Creating likeable characters was hardly important either.)
Smith and Turner, who plays the title role, read five translations of Brecht’s story, which follows a somewhat heartless but business-savvy mother who travels with her children around the battlefields of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War and makes profits off the soldiers. The pair decided on David Hare’s version, written for London’s Royal National Theatre in 1995.
“I think that translation is brilliant,” Smith says. “[‘Mother Courage’] is sarcastic, it’s nasty, it’s viscerally funny and I think David Hare got all that.”
Smith immediately envisioned a fierce, physical production, and for that she was going to need . . .
One of the first collaborators on the production was David Leong, a choreographer who had worked with Arena many times, although never quite like this.
“The biggest thrill for me was when [Smith] said, ‘I have this play I’m working on and I want you to help me create the world of this play,’ ” he says. “That was huge. That just excited me, and I didn’t even know what the play was.”
Leong, chair of the theater department at Virginia Commonwealth University, did something unorthodox to create the complex choreography: He brought in former students to help workshop the movement. The dancers came to Washington last summer and this December, ironing out what he and Smith call “the language of the play.” That particular dialect includes anything that might creep up and surprise the audience, such as slow motion or actors frozen in place.
The importance of movement in this production can’t be overstated, Leong says. “The music is almost always written first, and then the choreography happens,” he says. “In this instance it was the other way around.”
The choreography had been largely decided before working on another big element . . .
Envisioning the play’s itinerant peasants wandering the countryside carrying their homes on their backs, Smith had a thought: What if the actors also were musicians? They would carry their instruments and switch between portraying a soldier or peasant and being part of the musical ensemble — which, coincidentally, would be very Brechtian.
“I think it also really ignites the imagination for the audience,” says composer and music supervisor James Sugg of Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre. “It’s one thing to have a pit tucked God knows where. . . . A lot of pits are hidden, which means of course they’re miked, so all the sound is coming out of speakers — you’re not hearing it acoustically. I think it will give it an enormous, grounded quality to see the tuba there and hear it coming from him.”
Of course that could only work with very careful . . .
Smith, Sugg and Leong were looking for performers who could act, move and play instruments — better yet, a variety of instruments. Turner and some of the lead actors don’t play instruments (“I did have dreams of Kathleen picking up the tuba at some point, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Sugg says, jokingly), but about a dozen actors in the 17-person cast do.
“We really concentrated on finding people who could play,” Sugg says. “Logistically it’s really tough, but we got so lucky. We hired Nathan [Koci], our accordion, as a ringer. . . . But then people like Rick Foucheux, who’s an outstanding actor, he’s actually really solid on tuba. And people like James Konicek whipped out his trombone and played it at the audition and his tone was great and his skill was great. And our accordion player also plays trumpet. So all of a sudden we have this brass trio, and they’re going to be a solid brass trio.”
After deciding on instruments, Sugg could finally finalize another major piece . . .
“She’s got one of the great voices of all time,” Smith says of Turner. And the erstwhile Jessica Rabbit certainly has a recognizable timbre when it comes to speaking.
But even Smith had to ask how that husky voice would translate to music.
Turner recalls: “I think we’d been to lunch or something, and [Smith] said, ‘Well, can you sing?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I think I can,’ and she said, ‘Why don’t you sing something?’ So in her little Volkswagen Bug, driving around Washington, I sang for her.” (The song, if you’re curious, was the blues standard “Since I Fell for You.”)
Then it was just a question of the type of music, which Smith thought should be “wild gypsy music,” something in the vein of the band Gogol Bordello. Sugg ended up writing Eastern European-influenced music infused with military-type snares and “an electric guitar moment.” But the composer had to make sure the actors were skillful enough to play his arrangements, not to mention able to play while performing choreography.
“David Leong and I battled it out very early on,” Sugg says. “He wants a presence of movement onstage, so numbers are important to him — numbers of bodies — and then, of course not only the numbers, but he’s like, ‘I want this body, because they’re great movers.’ It was tough.”
They found a compromise. “At those early meetings, we said, ‘Let’s just make baseball cards of each actor, and I’ll trade you this one for this one,’ ” Sugg says. “So we did some baseball-card trading in those early days, and there’s a very sacred grid of who’s where and where they’re coming from and what they have to do in the next scene that everyone has to stick to, and if something goes off grid it affects about 10 different people.”
If all this sounds like an overwhelming amount of coordination . . .
There’s Mother Courage’s ever-changing cart of goods, the set designed to look like a crater, the strangely gorgeous costumes decorated with rust stains, the complications of in-the-round staging in the Fichandler Theatre. It goes on and on.
But if all goes as planned, all the pieces will fall right in place, and theatergoers will never be the wiser.
Through March 9 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300.