(1920) by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, this jewel of the early Polish avant-garde,
will be done with elements scored as an opera, with ten players, a dozen puppets
of various kinds and five live musicians. It is the New York debut of Theatre
of a Two-Headed Calf, a troupe founded by O'Harra and Connelly that was named
after a well-known play by Witkiewicz.
The son of a Polish painter
and a painter in his own right, S.I. Witkiewicz wrote over 30 plays between
1918 and his suicide in 1939. About a third of these are still unpublished.
Yet Witkiewicz, who was practically ignored in his time and left no direct disciples,
bestrides the avant-garde like a colossus, mysteriously arousing more excitement
in young playwrights than practically any other 20th century writer, even O'Neill.
His influence is perhaps magnified by the enthusiasm of European scholars, but
his standing as progenitor of the avant-garde is unquestioned.
S.I. Witkiewicz is known
for his outrageously extravagant scenes influenced by all kinds of cults and
philosophical speculations. In "Tumor Brainiowicz," the overriding
spirit is mathematics. The play was largely inspired by the life of Polish mathematician
Georg Cantor, who proved infinity to be an actual value (as opposed to a more
vague notion of the inestimable, or a philosophical concept of "nothing
beyond") and died in a mental institution in 1918. There is more than a
little truth to the struggle described in this play, since the mathematical
establishment of Europe didn't exactly want Cantor to succeed. With this play,
Witkiewicz compares mathematical genius to the artistic kind. Brainiowicz' growing
understanding of infinity is compared to a tumor which proliferates while the
genius is subjected to a barrage of plots, subterfuges and attempts to steal
"the power of math."
The daring, formative plays
of S.I. Witkiewicz, including "The Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf"
and "The Water Hen," have cast a long shadow over modernism and the
avant-garde, but it's nearly impossible to find anything written on "Tumor
Brainiowicz." It is virtually unknown in the English-speaking countries.
But its style and viewpoint are Witkiewicz to a "W": it is filled
with disturbing reflections on Man's existence, often delivered in dialogue
whose madcap effervescence defies rational interpretation. In Witkiewicz' crazy,
menacing world, scientists (like priests) are strange madmen, horrifying violence
alternates with portentous scenes of inaction, and the universe is generally
collapsing into ruins. All is imbued with the doctrine of "pure form,"
a concept that was passionately publicized by the Futurists, Cubists and defiant
artists of Krakow.
In this production, there
are puppets doubling all the main characters and puppets playing crowd scenes.
The directorial philosophy is to illustrate the scale of events--part of
the inner mathematical structure of the piece, which actually mirrors the
math of the play with the "pure form" S.I. Witkiewicz claims to have derived
from masterpieces of other arts, including the novels of Joseph Conrad. There
is always an idea of a narrative, but not a "clean" one, since the
structure itself is deconstructed and this overshadows everything. To director
Brooke O'Harra, it is more important to theatrically exploit the author's structure
than his narrative, since the greater meaning of the play lies there. For the
audience, the experience of "Tumor Brainiowicz" should be sort of
like "feeling" the world of the mathematician, including the texture
of his relationships to other people (who are trying to suck him dry) and to
his own mind.
The musicians are on stage
the entire time and are a collective "character". They are in costume,
sometimes move around, sometimes speak and are always an ominous/comical presence.
This idea stems from S.I. Witkiewicz's use of crowds in his plays, which stand
or move in unison, but never speak. (This "device" is also used in
a later play, "Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes.")
The music in the production
is derived directly from the deep structure of the play. In fact, the performance
was originally conceived as a series of movement sequences created from only
the stage directions. O'Harra and composer Brendan Connelly extracted long
and often impossible sets of stage actions from the body of the text and
strung them together. Connelly then scored each set of actions which, when
staged, would become Movement Sequences. These sequences each have a set
of motions, each labeled with a letter (from "a" to "e",
for example). O'Harra and Connelly then rearranged and repeated these letters
until they found a pattern that best told the story of the characters. For
instance, in the first act, they used an additive structure of a-a-b-a-b-c-a-b-c-d-a-b-c-d.
Describing the "style"
of the music, Connelly writes, "I deal a lot with boxed figures, which
means the musician is given a set of notes and has a certain amount of freedom
to improvise with these notes. The intention is that the music changes every
time it is played and the actors must react to and interact with these changes.
I have chosen musicians with experience in improvisation and their ability
to exchange ideas and build on what I have given them is a great asset to the
'life' of a scene."
Director Brooke O'Harra,
27, has the theatrical devotion of a religious extremist and the speaking style
of a child genius. She studied Japanese theater in Tokyo, where she lived
for two years, performed in a Butoh company and ran a street theater company.
It was there that she first became devoted to S.I. Witkiewicz, by being immersed
in a Tokyo theater festival devoted to the author. She is also a Tulane MFA
graduate and her New Orleans productions include directing Witkiewicz' "The
Madmen and the Nun" for Madame Palmetto's Entertainment Company at the
Rooster Theater. While enrolled at Tulane, Ms. O'Harra worked in Prague at the
Komedie Divadlo as an assistant to director Jan Nebesky. She has been a Drama
League Directing fellow at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY. She has also directed
productions of "Hedda Gabler," "The Maids" and "The
Successful Life of 3," has been Assistant Director to Scott Shattuck at
the Jean Cocteau Repertory in NYC, and has trained with the Bread and Puppet
Translator Daniel Gerould is one of the world's preeminent
scholars on eastern European theater. He is Lucille Lortel Distinguished
Professor of Theatre and Comparative Literature at The Graduate Center of
the City University of New York. He has translated the plays of S.I. Witkiewicz
and written books and articles about twentieth-century avant-garde theatre.
He is the author of "Guillotine: Its Legend and Lore,"
"Theatre/Theory/Theatre," and editor of Slavic and Eastern European
Performance and of the Polish and Eastern European Theatre Archives. His play,
"Candaules, Commissioner," was presented Off-Broadway and in Europe.
Composer Brendan Connelly collaborates steadily with
director Brooke O'Harra and is co-founder, with her, of Theatre of a Two-headed
Calf. Other recent sound design/composer credits include the "Amargo Trilogy," created
and directed by Ian Belton and most recently presented as a workshop at the
New York Theater Workshop. Connelly is also Head of Development of Wet Ink
Musics, a New York-based non-profit presenting organization dedicated to
the promotion and presentation of new music. He was born in Queens, New York.
The title character will
be played by Brian Bickerstaff, who recently appeared in The Club at
La MaMa in "Dickplay" by Jack Bump. Bickerstaff has acted in three
productions at Gale Gates et. al., most recently "So Long Ago I Can't Remember."
He spent last year in Richard Foreman's "Bad Boy Nietsche," both
in NY and abroad. He is a stalwart member of the theater company Collapsible
Giraffe (an outgrowth of The Wooster Group) and has recently also begun working
with Combustive Arts in its new space in Brooklyn.
Puppet makers are Candy
Ellison and Misako Takashima. Set is by Peter Wahlberg; lighting is by Ben Fox;
costume design is by Carol Cutshall. The players are Brian Bickerstaff, Mary
Bonner Baker, Rob Marcato, Matt Shapiro, Mary Regan, Nicky Paraiso, Zakia Babb-Bornstein
and the voices of Isaac Zimet-Maddow and Misako Takashima. The musicians are:
Jean Cooke (violin), Matt Hough (electric guitar), Sam Hillmer (tenor saxophone),
Gina Valvano (bassoon), and Jacob Garchik (percussion and trombone).
Portions of this production
were workshopped at Manhattan Theatre Source, Chashama and Dixon Place between
April and December, 2001.