FARMINGTON — Brit Ward, the director of the Theater Ensemble Arts production of the Korean War comedy “M*A*S*H” opening this weekend at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater, initially was wary of the prospect of leading the show.
Ward said he is far more comfortable leading “smaller” productions. He originally hoped the TEA board would ask him to direct the company’s staging of Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” in March, a play for which he felt particularly well suited.
But that didn’t happen, and he was presented with the opportunity to direct “M*A*S*H” instead. Ward’s immediate reaction was to decline the offer. After all, even though the stage production may not be very well known, the “M*A*S*H” franchise is nothing short of an American cultural icon.
The 1970 film based on the Richard Hooker novel starred Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt and Robert Duvall, and was a critical and commercial success, earning five Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. But even that paled in comparison to the CBS-TV series that ran for 11 seasons, becoming one of the most beloved television programs in history by the time it went off the air in 1983 with a series finale that would turn out to be the most highly rated and most-watched show in U.S. television history at the time.
In light of that, Ward’s initial reluctance is understandable.
“‘M*A*S*H’ is very ingrained in the cultural milieu,” he said last week as rehearsals for the production continued. “And people have certain expectations about how the characters are going to look and sound. There’s every expectation that Radar O’Reilly needs to look a certain way.”
Those expectations don’t leave a lot of room for interpretation by the cast and crew of new productions of the play. But more than that, Ward acknowledged he was a little intimidated by the idea of taking on a property that still has such a substantial cultural presence.
“It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever (directed),” he said. “That felt scary, but I understand that if something feels scary to you, you should do it. The challenge was very appealing.”
It didn’t take much, if any convincing on the part of the TEA board to get Ward to say yes. He said by the time board members got around to pitching him the idea, he already had overcome his reservations.
“There was no arm wringing,” he said. “I knew the people who were involved, and I trusted them. I knew there were a lot of people around me who would help. Once I saw who my team was going to be, I agreed.”
Now, Ward is glad he did, even if there are aspects of the play that still give him pause. For instance, the cast — 20 actors playing 23 characters — is huge. Simply managing the auditions was going to be an enormous chore, he thought.
But even then, Ward’s fears turned out to be unfounded.
“I was lucky,” he said. “Normally, with a cast this big, you’re bound to get somebody who’s not right for a part.”
To his amazement, Ward said, those auditions yielded the right actor for every character. The cast also includes Steven Clarke as Capt. “Hawkeye” Pierce, Thomas LaRue as “Duke” Forrest, Madison Ballard as Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, Charles Holmes as “Trapper” John McIntyre, Nick Michael as Maj. Frank Burns, Dan Ware as Col. Henry Blake, Jeremy Orr as Capt. “Ugly” John Black, Kevin Tschetter as Capt. Walter Waldowski, Jonathan Alexander as Cpl. “Radar” O’Reilly, Kiana Poafbybitty as Ho-Jon, Dakota Davis as Lt. Janice Fury, Jody LaRue as Capt. Bridget “Knocko” McCarthy, Jason Cowell as Devine, Jazmine Torres as Nancy Phillips/Senator Goldfarb, Brooke Blackburn as Louise Kimble/Randazzle, Syd Neylan as Gen. Hammond/Dean Lodge, Mariah Culpepper as Agnes Bonwit, Jymi Rodgers as Mitzi Bonwit, Eric Crandall as Lopez and Zach Howell as Pvt. Boone. Karen Brewer is the stage manager.
Ward said he has worked with Holmes and Thomas LaRue before, while Clarke serves as a drama teacher at Farmington High School. But he was unfamiliar with much of the rest of the cast and is working with many of them for the first time.
Given the enormous cultural impact the TV series had, there remains a high degree of familiarity on the part of the public with many of the characters in the play. Ward said that when a director faces that situation, there’s often a strong impulse to keep the cast members of the new production from accessing the old material out of a fear they will simply mimic those famous portrayals.
“You tend to put off-limits material that has come before,” he said, although, in this case, that wasn’t necessary because the actors in this production were professionals and knew they should avoid that material.
In at least one instance, one of the stars of the production was starting from scratch with her character.
“Madison (Ballard) had never really seen ‘M*A*S*H’ before,” Ward said. “So she researched it, and she came back and said, ‘I’m going to do this instead.’ And what she came up with aligned perfectly with what I wanted from her.”
He said Ballard has made the role of Hot Lips her own.
“Her version of ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan is my favorite version, even more than the movie or the TV series,” Ward said.
The director noted that Steven Clarke faced an uphill battle trying to bring a different interpretation to his role as Hawkeye.
“I never remember Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye (from the film version),” he said. “People always remember Alan Alda (from the TV series).”
But Clarke pulled it off, he said.
“He put his own stamp on that character and did it in a way that he can be proud of forever,” Ward said.
That’s not to say this version of “M*A*S*H” will be unfamiliar to the audience, he said.
“We’re honoring the characters that came before but we’re approaching it in a way that these actors can say, ‘I did that my own way.’”
Ward said the stage version of “M*A*S*H” is more faithful to Hooker’s novel than to the film or the TV series. Perhaps the biggest departure, he said, is the near-absence of any sexual tension between two of the central characters.
“Hot Lips’ relationship with Frank Burns is completely gone, other than hinting at it,” he said.
But other aspects of this production will be very familiar, he said.
“Radar has his teddy bear and his little beanie he wears,” Ward said. “So, yes, we know what’s come before, and we’re not trying to dishonor what’s come before.”
The cast of the TEA production is trying to put its signature on this version of “M*A*S*H” by taking the humor in a slightly different direction.
“It’s a little more zany,” Ward said. “There’s a lot of dry humor contrasted with the bizarre. We’ve kept it more PG (rated). There are a lot of what-the-heck moments.”
But the story’s dominant theme — the madness of life in a makeshift hospital in the middle of a war zone, as seen largely through the eyes of two overworked young Army surgeons — remains the same.
“I really like the way Hawkeye and Duke own the stage,” Ward said. “I like the idea that they’re almost aware that they’re in a play. That’s how they have the advantage over the other characters.”
As for the surroundings in this production, they will be familiar and new at the same time. They’ll be familiar in the sense that the sets are very straightforward — lots of drab Army olive canvas.
“We went for any kind of tarp we could find, any kind of netting,” Ward said, explaining that he didn’t want any complicated set changes between scenes that would slow down the pace of the production.
“It’s easy to fall into that three-hour (run time) trap,” he said. “There’s no way I was going to do that to our audience. So there’s basically no scene transition here. Having a minimalistic set really benefits us there.”
But the set will have an impressive centerpiece — a replica of the famous Bell 47 Army helicopters that were used to ferry wounded soldiers to M*A*S*H units — the acronym stands for mobile Army surgical hospital — just miles from the front lines. Set designer Bernard Coffey built the helicopter, which made its debut last month in TEA’s float in Farmington’s Fourth of July parade.
“He said, ‘I can build one of those helicopters,’ and I said, ‘Really?’” Ward said, laughing. “I love that helicopter. It gives a lot of texture to the show.”
The show marks a departure for TEA in that the company doesn’t usually mount a summer production, nor does it stage its shows outside, as it will with this one at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater.
Ward is well aware of the challenges of staging a production outside — the weather, chief among them — but he said he knows better than to worry about things he can’t control. Instead, he has chosen to focus on embracing the opportunities that moving outside offer.
“(This is a play) that’s been done primarily by community theater and high school productions, so it’s typically done in smaller spaces, and so you have to use the space economically,” he said. “We wanted to do something bigger. And this is TEA’s shot at doing a summer show in addition to the regular lineup, so I think this is sort of a grand experiment to see how well it goes.”
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: The Theater Ensemble Arts production of “M*A*S*H”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Aug. 12-13 and Friday-Saturday, Aug. 19-20; and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21
Where: Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater, 5800 College Blvd. in Farmington
Tickets: $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors. Matinee prices are half off with a donation to Childhaven Inc. in Farmington to help purchased school supplied for needy children
For more information: 505-326-2839