That's Entertainment: With Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage, Arena Stage's Molly Smith Gives Brecht a New Spin

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27 Jan 2014

Kathleen Turner
Kathleen Turner

Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith searches for the fun in Brecht as she stages a music-filled Mother Courage and Her Children, starring Kathleen Turner. 

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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." 

Molly Smith
Photo by Tony Powell

Was finding actors who could also play instruments, which will include accordion, trumpet, percussion, guitar, trombone, saxophone, viola and tuba, and master Leong's choreography a challenge?

"Absolutely!" she said. "Probably half of the actors I've worked with before, and half are newcomers. It's a wonderful combination. We probably have ten of the actors playing musical instruments, and some are playing more than one musical instrument. There's a kind of thrill about it. The actors are so versatile in this production. Each one is very strong as far as their musical capacity and their movement capabilities."

In preparation for the show, Leong held a couple of workshops to work on the movement pieces. The sequences vary in their artistic nature and practical intent.

"Sometimes it's a remarkable scene shift," explained Smith. "Sometime it's something going on in the war, sometimes its just something funny. We wanted to be able to show the war and the emotional landscape of the play in a different way."

There are 11 songs in the production, and prior to each, a combination of choreography and scenic and lighting elements shifts the staging from a scene of war to ostentatiously theatrical world of a bombed-out theatre.

2014 will be a busy year for Smith. Following Mother Courage, she will stage the world premiere of Lawrence Wright's Camp David, about the historic peace accord between Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. Performances begin March 21 at Arena Stage. Soon after, she will make her Broadway directorial debut, re-mounting the 2013 Arena play The Velocity of Autumn, by Eric Coble and starring Estelle Parsons, at Broadway's Booth Theatre. Opening April 21, it will mark the third Arena Stage production to reach Broadway this season, after A Night With Janis Joplin and A Time to Kill

But before all that happens, there's the Brecht, which Smith describes in terms that may seem strange to theatregoers familiar with the playwright only through textbooks and the occasional earnest college mounting.

"The way we're going about it, it's about entertainment and pleasure," said Smith. "And that's really what Brecht wanted."