“Don’t lie to the audience.” That’s what director Yury Urnov told his creative team. No masking. Visible booms and other equipment. No pretense.
Not that Sasha Denisova’s My Mama & the Full-Scale Invasion was going to fool anyone.
The play that is set in an apartment in the Ukraine and also in a fantastical world began to take shape on Facebook. Scenic designer Misha Kachman was following his friend, Denisova, who was posting transcripts of phone and email conversations with her mother. Denisova was in Poland. Mama was in Kiev, and she wasn’t about to leave.
Denisova was also letting her imagination run wild on Facebook, with stories about Mama’s ability to shoot drones with jars of pickles and converse with world leaders, God, and an alien.
Out of this came a partial script that Denisova sent to Yury Urnov, co-artistic director of the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. “Yury and Sasha had known each other since the 2000s when they were both connected to the renowned documentary theatre company Teatr.doc in Moscow. He was looking for a play that reflects on this catastrophe,” says Kachman. “The enormity of the Russian aggression is hard to comprehend,” adds the Russian-born translator/designer who has family in both countries. “Even if I had no family, it’s like we are Germans in 1945.”
“We fled,” says Urnov. “We feel guilt.”
“How much would people like myself or Yury to have given for this play to never have been written, for people not being blown to pieces and raped and tortured,” adds Kachman.
But the play was written. Urnov read it and sent it to Kachman, “just to read.” Kachman was in tech for another show and says he had nothing much to do while the lighting, sound and projection designers did their work. And “just for fun,” he translated the early draft from Russian into English, then gave it to his 21-year-old American-born daughter to polish.
Urnov sent Kachman’s translation to to Maria Manuela Goyanes, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre in DC, where Kachman frequently designs. She wanted to produce it and work on a co-production with the Wilma began, with Holly Twyford, a regular at Woolly, as Mother, and two members of the Wilma company, Suli Holum as Daughter, and Lindsay Smiling as Man, who appears as Mama’s younger husband, Putin, Biden, God, and others. The play that just closed at Woolly opens at Wilma in late January.
“What is essential is that the apartment has specificity, verisimilitude, precision,” says Kachman. “Mama doesn’t leave the apartment. She doesn’t go down to the shelter. Her zone of operation is that three room flat and the balcony. That flat is very specific, and at the same time very generic. Soviet built mass-produced housing is familiar to everyone in the Eastern bloc,” says Kachman, noting the low ceilings. “We are so proud that immigrants who come to the show say, ‘I used to have that shelf.’”
Authentic Set Dressing
The set dressing includes the complete works of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain in Russian, volumes Kachman brought with him when he immigrated. “Every Soviet era intelligentsia family had those two collections on their shelves,” he says.
Meanwhile, there is “a return portion of the spaceship that has been traveling through the atmosphere, so it’s all burned out from the outside, but it’s a spaceship that’s Victorian in its aesthetic. The aliens are coming in a clunky steam powered spaceship, some parts of it have fallen off and some of the contents of that apartment are now scattered around the space. On the roof of the apartment there are fantastical radio telescopes, antennas, and life systems that supply oxygen,” says Kachman.
On the one hand, the play is about the conflict between a daughter who wants to get her mother out of the apartment, out of the Ukraine, and a mother who won’t budge. On the other, an alien wants to help Mama get out of Kiev, too. “It’s not just a plain documentary. It has two layers,” says Urnov. “Part of it is very very real. The other part is Sasha’s imagination.”
“It goes small and mundane sometimes, literally kitchen sink,” Kachman adds. “Mama makes stuffed peppers on stage. She cuts onions and grinds meat. Then it goes cosmic.”
In addition to fantasy and reality, there are memory scenes. The playwright hasn’t visited her mother since the war started, but Daughter returns in memory scenes.
Urnov broke the sound world into three parts for sound designer and composer Michael Kiley. He composed a light motif for the relationship between daughter and mother, using several instruments and two clarinet lines that had parallel movement to represent two women across the great distance.
“This is in large part a history play. We’re jumping around in time and location a lot,” says Kiley, explaining that in one scene, he needed a disco sound, another a World War II era sound.
And what would Kiley do for the sci-fi world? He was designing things that actually happened and segueing into a post-apocalyptic world. Could he find a thread that tied them all together? “The sonic theme of noise, static white noise, the sound of technology is always there, even when you were hearing something that was mostly music. “I tried to present the major theme of distance, and more specifically, communication over distance, and how technology can help close that gap, but also creates a new kind of separation and isolation," he says.
Kiley sent the music to everyone on the design team so they could coordinate light and video cues with it. “When Putin presses the button, there is a very large sound cue and lights come up and blind the audience for a moment and a huge mushroom cloud is projected along back,” he says. Waves and beach birds were created through sound and projection. Kiley altered a Bach piece by adding gun fire, explosions, and bombs in the rhythm of a Bach minuet, because Mama refers to the sounds of the war as "music by Bach.”
“I really love working with Yury. He’s obsessed with finding the positivity in these brutal circumstances,” says Kiley. “He leaves lot of room for imagination and composition and sound design. I get to flex all those muscles when I work with him.”
Costume designer Ivania Stack studied family photos Sasha sent her. “I didn’t know what a Soviet schoolgirl’s outfit looks like. The photos got us started. But it’s not a documentary.
“Ivania is extremely precise with documentary elements, and beautifully imaginative when it comes to building fantastical costumes out of these documentary elements,” Urnov says.
Kachman suggested they “make the realistic scenes sleek and digital and the fantastical scenes stupid and analog. Zelinski wears a superman costume; the alien wears a cardboard suit like from a really awful Halloween party, and when he shows up, there are no projections whatsoever. It’s a man in a cardboard suit. When God makes an appearance, Lindsay pulls off a curtain and wraps it around himself. There is some logic in this, there’s charm in this, and there’s comedy in this,” says Kachman, adding that we don’t know what the future will look like. “Why assume it will be plexiglass and LED tape?”
“We used corrugated cardboard and plastic covered with brown paper duct tape, and lit it up like a dude making his own costume,” Stack says of the alien’s costume.
“We could only afford one suit for these famous people [Biden, Zelinski and other heads of state], so all we did was change the tie. Video work darkened the suit and layered the face. I love working with Venus and Kelly. Misha and I worked together. Whenever I have a question, we figure it together,” says Stack.
Stack says she tried not to buy anything new, except undergarments and shoes. She found some garments in stock and others on eBay that she felt better captured the aesthetic of a memory play than anything they might buy.
She found a few vintage dresses for Mama. “I wanted Holly to feel good in her Mama dress, so we tried on several,” says Stack.
Adds Kachman, “Sasha was here in the rehearsal process and would send images to her mother. She would send me screenshots of their conversation. Mama expressed opinions about costume choices. She would give design notes.” The team took them seriously.
“Designers and playwrights can build something together. You have to be nimble as a designer. Sometimes a scene will change, and you have to have something the next day,” says Stack, who enjoys devising on the spot.
Ivana had problems like I did with verisimilitude,” Kachman says. “There is a danger of seeing a ridiculous old woman from foreign underdeveloped country; there is a danger of creating distance.”
Although the artistic team and cast will return and the concept won’t change when the show transfers to the Wilma, there will be adjustments demanded by the space. The space will adjust, too. Colburn will project onto a newly built wall at Wilma, for instance. .
“I think the world ended up being pretty cohesive,” Urnov reflects. “Projections do a lot of work. They really help with creating this outer fantastic world. Also, this second world feels a dialogue with the architecture of the set itself. It felt like one design is an extension of the other. Lighting had to deal with both worlds, too. Video is an echo of the stage design. All the designers are complimenting each other, telling the same story. It is hard to say where design ends and directing begins. Misha is amazing and co-author of this production.”