Molly Smith, the artistic director of Arena Stage, knew she had her work cut out for her when she put Bertolt Brecht's classic anti-war drama Mother Courage and Her Children on the schedule at the Washington, D.C., nonprofit.
"I think sometimes that people think Brecht is dour or only dark," said Smith. "I believed that his strongest work is like a rubber band. It moves from drama into comedy. The piece is, in places, very funny. It's about human beings in extremis."
No one will mistake Smith's Mother Courage for a dry dramatic dialectic. This production, which begins performances Jan. 31, comes fully loaded, with the sort of design and musical elements audiences typically associate with musicals. James Sugg has composed what Smith calls a "wild, gypsy music" score for the play, which, as in many of Brecht's better-known pieces of "Epic Theatre," is peppered with several fourth-wall-shattering songs. The actors will not be accompanied by a offstage band, as is often the case with Brecht, but by the acting ensemble itself. In a John Doyle-like gesture, many of the cast members double as orchestra members.
The actors are also called upon to dance, executing several "movement pieces" created for the production by David Leong. "We're using every tool in our arsenal," said Smith, "— movement, dance, cabaret, music, and acting, of course — to crack the style, so that audiences will see something that demands that they think and feel."
That arsenal also includes star casting. Two-time Tony nominee Kathleen Turner, playing the title character, will sing and move just as any other member of the cast. Turner is an Arena Stage veteran, and convincing her to sign on to Mother Courage didn't take much effort.
"Kathleen and I were having discussions on a project to work on together at Arena," told Smith. "First we were talking about The Glass Menagerie. But then ART had a wonderful production with Cherry Jones that was moving to New York. So it was not possible to get the rights." Then the idea of Mother Courage came up. Though Arena Stage's focus is on American artists, Anita Maynard-Losh, Arena's director of community engagement, pointed out to Smith that, "We can drive our programming through an American artist and that artist is Kathleen Turner."
Turner was game. "I think it is in the imagination of any great female artist that this is a role that they may tackle in their lives," explained Smith. "It's like Lear."
Smith, a lifelong fan of Brecht, has directed Mother Courage before. The first time was at the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska, a company she founded in 1979 and ran until 1998, before coming to Arena. "At the time it was pint-size stage with 82 seats and the size of a postage stamp," she recalled. She felt it was time for another go at it, observing that, "Thirty years ago is a lifetime."
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