Kathleen Turner returns to Arena Stage to play one of the greatest theatrical roles for women in Bertolt Brecht's epic play, Mother Courage and Her Children, which began rehearsals last week. Joined by Arena favorites Nicholas Rodriguez and Nehal Joshi, as well as a host of DC talent including Erin Weaver, Rick Foucheux, James Konicek, John Leslie Wolfe, Jesse Terrill, Dan Istrate, Jacobi Howard, Lise Bruneau, Rayanne Gonzales and Monalisa Arias, plus a host of talented actors and musicians from across the country!
Watch an excerpt of Artistic Director Molly Smith's welcome address to the company of
Mother Courage and Her Children at first rehearsal. (Full text of speech below.)
We live in an ironic age.
Trust in our elected officials on Capitol Hill is at 10%, the confidence in our banks and financial systems are at an all-time low, deep suspicions abound about our religious systems and America is in the middle of her own Thirty Years War. Brecht was writing during 1939, after World War I and in the run up to World War II, after he had fled Germany because of his fears of Hitler. Financial systems were crashing worldwide, rampant racism included Jews, blacks, homosexuals, romas (or gypsies), and communists, and the disparity between the rich and the poor was a chasm.
No wonder his play has such resonance for our world today.
Mother Courage and Her Children is the greatest anti-war play ever written. This translation by David Hare is superb—terse, juicy and full of humor. Brecht was interested in waking the audience out of their slumber through the use of opposing viewpoints, contradictions of material, and direct interventions through songs that disrupt the action of the play. He believed in story above all else and developed ideas around epic construction, alienation and opposition that transformed the landscape of theater.
His ideas are essentially modern about dynamically opposing scenes where the audience needs to think and feel and question from moment to moment—from his use of bright blinding light to the creation of a character like Mother Courage—he forces us to examine our politics at the same time our hearts and minds are engaged. He loved tumbling pantomime, music, dance, masks and text next to each other. There is nothing seamless or inevitable about his storytelling and it is actually closer to contemporary film than theater in the 1930s.
Brecht was writing about Europe's thirty year war—from the 1910s-1940s—through the lens of the Thirty Years War during the 1600s. We see his play through America's thirty year war, beginning with Iran in 1978 and continuing through the hot wars and the present day.
He believed in deep entertainment and thought the ultimate purpose of theater is pleasure. I can't argue with him there.
Our path to today has been a long trajectory: beginning with Anita Maynard-Losh and Dan Pruksarnukul. Kathleen and I had been talking about doing Glass Menagerie together over a year ago but the rights were closed down because the American Repertory Theater production was moving to Broadway. Anita posed the question: “Well, Molly, you've always said even though we're focused on American voices, if there is an important American artist who is fascinated with a great role in world literature, we'd do it.” The example I always used was if a great actress wanted to play Mother Courage, why not? This is one of the greatest roles in theater literature and every important actor, from Meryl Streep to Glenda Jackson to Diana Rigg to Fiona Shaw, has played the role—maybe Kathleen would want to put her unique stamp on the role? I called Kathleen and she said 'yes' and we were off to the races. Kathleen’s work as an artist is stellar. She’s also a wonderful human being, a great collaborator, and will be debuting as a singer in our production.
Dan suggested James Sugg from Pig Iron for composer and he and Seema Sueko mentioned Gogol Bordello and a few other bands. When I spoke to James, he was enthused. One of the central ideas was that the cast members also play musical instruments and carry their instruments with them—indeed, carrying their "houses on their backs." The initial idea I had was two pianos embedded in the set, since the play is also a cabaret act, but we left that idea behind and moved into a roving band—I'm giving you these examples so you see how ideas come together, are discarded and sometimes reborn. Our audience sees the final essence of all these thoughts and reverberations which have gone through many minds.
David Leong as Movement Director was an early thought. I knew I wanted movement pieces to show the devastation of war, the rhythm of war, and the everydayness of the world. I always think of David—who could forget his fifteen minute fight scene at the top of Act two of Oklahoma!?—and David plunged in and has already had two movement workshops here at Arena to map out the movement. David and I talked about cracking time—moving from slo-mo to fast-mo to snapshots. We'll be starting and ending each scene in a freeze and scene set-ups will be announced through a soldier and a megaphone to frame the plot of each scene. He'll tell you more when he speaks.
I've always loved Todd Rosenthal's work from Good People to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and thought his masculine architectural style was exactly right for our world. I have been moved by the work of Kiefer, a great German painter and installation artist whose work has come out of the devastation of World War II. As you can see through these photos of Todd's set, our world is both the landscape of war and a decaying theater. In keeping with Brecht's theory of opposition—during the twelve pieces of music we'll often be in a theater and in the scenes we'll mostly be in the landscape of war—we've dug down two feet, have ledges to sit on and stand on and lie on, catwalks lower than the theaters catwalks, which are usable and will be used for a lone sentry guarding the perimeter, to Kattrin drumming and falling after she's shot to death (flying devised by Foy of course).
The cart is the most important of all set pieces and defines the space by where it sits for each scene. In many ways, it's Mother Courage's fourth child and changes throughout the twelve years that the play takes place—sometimes with saddle bags, sometimes brimming with good cheer and items to sell, sometimes it's a bed and mobile home, sometimes a bar to drink around, sometimes like a skeleton of an animal. Mother Courage travels over 1900 miles during the course of our play. We will grow to love and curse this cart, already built by our crackerjack Props department headed by Chuck Fox. It has jeep wheels and a great turning radius and has been built to navigate the Voms, since it will sometimes leave the stage. A lone tree stump will be used as the cook's chopping table, a sitting area, the chaplain's place for chopping wood, and as a sad reminder that nature once existed here. Tents come down and disappear, rain falls during Commander Tilly's funeral...and I'm sure there is more but you'll just have to wait and see.
I wanted a strong historical dramaturg and was excited when Mark Bly said yes. Mark's background in the theater is huge and I knew he'd be the perfect person to be with us in the room as we begin our work on Mother Courage. Mark was our Senior Dramaturg here for a number of years and it’s great to have him back. Actors packages—a cornucopia of materials—have been created by Mark, and he'll be with us for the first week to answer questions.
This is Joe Salasovich’s debut as a Costume Designer at Arena (he's been our Shop Manager for over a decade) and he's been endlessly inventive in figuring out the uniforms, the romas, the peasants, the family—I've enjoyed having full-on sessions with Joe where he's brought in fabric, boots, clothing and fully fleshed out manikins to develop the world.
Nancy Schertler has the exciting task as Lighting Designer to dramatically and drastically take us from the world of the theater to the world of the war and I know she has some tricks up her sleeves she might let us in on. Tim Thompson will be working alongside James as Sound Designer. The off-stage sounds of war are hugely important and yes, you'll all be mic'd for the music in the production.
Sue White is with us as Stage Manager as she is always with me as the best right hand in the rehearsal hall I can imagine and I'm so happy that I finally get to work with Kurt Hall who will be joining us as the second Stage Manager on this production. Two dynamic stage managers—how did we get so lucky?
I knew I wanted Erin Weaver early on as Kattrin, Mother Courage's mute daughter because of her infinite light on stage. I zeroed in on Nick Rodriguez as Eilif, her brave son, because of our superb working relationship and his charisma on and off stage and Nehal Joshi who has graced our stage in Oklahoma! and The Music Man, with his humor and style, as her honest son Swiss Cheese—all children with different fathers, each distinct and unlike each other.
It was time to bring back Meg Gillentine, who you haven't seen since Cabaret, for Yvette, the camp follower and Jack Willis, who has been lost to us for over a decade to the other side of the country, to play the Cook. Rick Foucheux and I have been looking for a project to work on for years and I'm thrilled we've found the Chaplain and it’s a real joy to welcome back Lise, Rayanne, Jesse, John Leslie and James TK. First timers at Arena include: Jacobi, Monalisa, Dan, and we went to New York for remarkable musicians and found them with Jed and Nathan.
I can promise that this production will be visceral, nastily funny, a sock to the gut, and undeniably fierce. How could it be anything else when this group of collaborators come together?Mother Courage is the story of a mother who loves her children so fully she’s willing to put down her life—but not her business—for them to survive. I am fascinated with her tenacity and robust verve for life, her ability to lie, cheat and con her way out of any situation and her infinite love for her children.