NEW YORK — Onstage the other night at “The Ferryman,” Jez Butterworth’s wrenching play about an extended family in 1980s Northern Ireland, nearly two dozen people were embarking on another evening of love, lust, dancing, drinking, politics and violence.
But upstairs in a makeshift kitchen carved from a dressing room, Clem Zajac, head of props, was speed-sliding his potatoes into the oven, peeling his carrots and constructing his roast goose (in actual fact, pieces of roast beef layered over a goose-like base). He didn’t have much time.
These and other non-fake foods would soon feature in the pivotal Act 2 feast scene, where the characters would eat them.
All Broadway plays are complicated in their own ways. But “The Ferryman,” which opened at New York City’s Bernard M. Jacobs Theater in October after a London run, has presented extra logistical challenges for the multitudes working on the production.
It’s not just that the play has a cast of 21 people (aside from understudies), including four young children and a real live infant.
Nor is it just that the characters enter and exit from four separate locations — one of them via a steep staircase perpetually populated by someone who is lingering on or running up or down it — in a dizzyingly choreographed dance of comings and goings.
It’s also everything else: the live goose and the live rabbit that come out at two crucial moments; the freshly sautéed bacon and the authentic goose fat that is being used to roast the potatoes at the insistence of director Sam Mendes; the table lamp whose shade erupts into flames; the smells of peat that waft through the theater, evoking the rural countryside; and three different consistencies of stage blood used at three different bloody moments for three different purposes — dripping, oozing and splattering.
Before any of that, it’s a matter of pure logistics, getting all the actors and all the crew members and all the props in the right place at the right time.
“I’ve been acting for nearly 40 years, but basically this is the biggest play I’ve ever been in, in terms of cast,” said Mark Lambert, who plays Uncle Pat. “It’s like a relay race where everyone is passing the baton, and you’re always coming offstage when someone else is coming on.”
The backstage area can grow crowded and busy, like a school hallway between classes. It falls to production stage manager Jill Cordle to bring order to what could easily descend into chaos.
“It’s a lot to keep track of, with children and animals and older actors and babies, but the story itself is straightforward, and everything makes sense,” she said.
Backstage, too, the actors were collecting and discarding props, making quick costume changes, at least one per person — and submitting to on-the-spot modifications.
At one point, Justin Edwards, playing a slow-minded Englishman called Tom Kettle, was sprayed with water and strategically daubed with (organic) mud, so it looked as if he had just come from the marshes.
His co-star in the next scene, a live Emden goose named Peggy whom he tucked, football style, under his arm as he came onstage, had likewise been strategically muddied. (While Edwards’ clothes would have to be cleaned later on, Peggy always cleans herself.)
Raised from an egg by veteran animal trainer William Berloni and by the animal handler assigned to the production, Rochelle Scudder, Peggy — who successfully laid an egg offstage during a recent performance — has proved herself to be a calm and affectionate goose who can handle the spotlight.
She spends her downtime in Scudder’s little animal sanctuary area down in the basement and is handed directly to Edwards before her scene each night.
The other animal in the production, a Netherland dwarf rabbit named Pierce because his early dark fur was reminiscent of Pierce Brosnan’s hair, also waits in the basement, where he has a hutch.
He got the job — which mostly requires nestling inside Tom Kettle’s coat pocket — because of his gentle disposition and love of cozy, enclosed spaces; a competing rabbit grew too big and too bouncy and lost the part.
Animals are one thing; children are another. Corralling and keeping track of seven of them — four in the main cast, and three understudies, aged 10 to 13 — falls to the production’s two child guardians.
Before the performances, the children hang out in their dressing rooms, which take up two floors in the narrow backstage tower, whiling away the time playing cards, Jenga and Clue and making up dances, said Krystal Rowley, head child guardian.
Their needs are unpredictable: The other night, for instance, one of the girls bit into a Tootsie Roll and unexpectedly lost a tooth with less than an hour to go. (She was fine; the show went on.)
The play also features an infant, which means that two working baby actors, accompanied by a parent, are on hand, too.
Because of their natural unpredictability, both babies — the main one and the auxiliary baby — wait backstage until the last minute. If a sudden mood or diaper mishap strikes, the other goes on.
“A live baby is like having a ticking bomb on the stage,” Tim Hoare, an associate director, said. “One of the first things a producer would usually say is, ‘Can we have a lifelike doll, or find some other way around it?’ ” But the live baby added to the verisimilitude of the production, he said.
Just as Mendes and the playwright, Butterworth, did not want a fake baby, they did not want fake anything else. So when a lampshade catches fire in an early scene, the flames are real.
As always, the conflagration the other night was set off by the production’s pyrotechnician, Tom Ferguson, who ignited it via a backstage mechanism that sent heat to a lighter-fluid-doused match head secreted within the lamp. The heat lit the match, and the lampshade burned up, only to be replaced anew for the next performance.
In addition to the props, Zajac is in charge of the food, and much of his work requires split-second backstage precision.
Moments before the roast goose was removed from the oven onstage in Act 2, for instance, Zajac poured boiling water on special absorbent material secreted at the bottom of the pan — this ensures that the bird appears to be steaming hot — and then discreetly slid the pan into the stage oven through an opening backstage.
Then there is the pistol that goes off in the play’s final scene, sending blood spewing — courtesy of a concealed blood cannon — across a wall covered with children’s artwork. “The blood can go 6 to 10 feet, and sometimes even higher,” Zajac said proudly. “Every night, we come out and mop out and clean up the walls.”
There is an inviolate ritual attached to the pistol.
The actor about to get shot was taken backstage before the scene, as he is every time, and shown the gun and the ammunition — a handful of blanks. He was also shown that the gun had been altered so it could not use real bullets — information that enabled him to go on without fearing that he might be the unwitting victim of a sudden Agatha Christie-style theatrical murder.
There was a second gun backstage, ready to be fired if for some reason the gun onstage failed to go off (so far, that hasn’t happened). And after the climactic scene and then the curtain, Zajac was, as always, waiting in the wings, stage left.
“After the first bow, I receive the gun from Paddy,” he said, referring to Paddy Considine, the actor who plays the key role of Quinn Carney. “And then I unload it, put it in its case, and put it back into the gun safe.”
And then cleanup begins.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.