|THE MOTHER is an exploration of the demented
but eerily familiar relationship of a mother and her son. Its theatrical
trajectory is pure "Witkacy," beginning in the drawing-room world
of Strindberg and Ibsen and gradually unraveling into a dimensionless void
which signals the new reality of the 20th century. Under the direction of
Brooke O'Harra (recipient of this year's TCG/NEA Director's Fellowship),
the cast will interact with video and the puppets created by Bilal Khan
& Daniel Levine, as well as each other. The title character is played
by four-time Obie Winner Tina Shepard; the son, Leon, is played by Jim Fletcher,
a regular in the plays of Richard Maxwell. The cast also features Suli Holum
(of Pig Iron Theatre Ensemble), Nicky Paraiso, Wilson Hall, and Zakia Babb.
A rich, carnivalesque and complex score by Brendan Connelly (co-founder
and resident composer of Theatre of a Two-headed Calf) will be performed
live on stage by the Scenery Ensemble (Eli Asher, trumpet; Sam Hillmer,
clarinet/saxophone; Beth Meyers, viola; Matthew Hough, electric guitar;
Gina Valvano, bassoon). The third act is almost entirely sung.
Inna Giter is dramaturg, Michael Phillips is lighting designer and Audrey
Robinson is costume designer. Videographer is Bilal Khan. This production
is generously funded by the Polish Cultural Institute.
Last year's NY debut for the troupe, "Tumor Brainiowicz," had
an initial run February 28 to March 10, 2002 in the second-floor Club
at La MaMa and was brought back April 25 to May 5 due to popular demand
and after Backstage (Dan Isaac) called it "an event of some importance"
that the play was having an "all too brief" American premiere.
Isaac congratulated Brooke O'Harra's "incredibly inventive"
direction and her use of puppets and voice-overs with actors lip-synching.
He also commended the production's "fine fusion jazz group,"
led by composer Brendan Connelly, which "gives the entire production
The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, founded by O'Harra and Connelly, was
named after "The Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf," a not so
well-known play by S.I. Witkiewicz. (His best-known play is "The
Water Hen"). The son of a Polish painter and a painter in his own
right, "Witkacy" 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 About a third of these are still unpublished.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. 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
and the life of Polish mathematician Georg Cantor. In "The Mother,"
it is the long shadow of Ibsen and Strindberg.
Director Brooke O'Harra, 29, 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 Theater.
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. C.S. Durer collaborated with
Gerould on the adaptation, which appeared in the first English language
collection of plays by Witkiewicz and was published in 1968. Durer was
at the time a graduate student at Berkeley and a Polish expatriate who
had participated as a teenager in the Warsaw Uprising against the Germans
in 1944. He went on to an academic career in the U.S.
Composer Brendan Connelly collaborates steadily with director Brooke
O'Harra and is co-founder, with her, of Theatre of a Two-headed Calf.
His other 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.
Tina Shepard (The Mother) is a four-time OBIE winner and a mainstay of
Joseph Chaikin's legendary Open Theater and it's "daughter"
companies including A Winter Project, The Talking Band and Otrabanda Company.
Her body of work includes such seminal pieces as The Open Theatre's "The
Serpent," "Terminal," "The Mutation Show" and
"Nightwalk," The Talking Band's "The Three Lives of Lucie
Cabrol" (OBIE, 1988), and "No Plays No Poetry...," directed
by Anne Bogart in collaboration with Talking Band and The Otrabanda Company
(1987). During the '90s, she has continued performing actively with The
Talking Band, Otrabanda, Joseph Chaikin and director Brian Jucha, appearing
frequently at La MaMa as well as teaching at Princeton, Williams and Smith.
The performance uses dolls, puppets, masks and "straight up acting."
It starts as a Drawing Room piece, Ibsenesque in style, and from that
point progresses into something more recognizably Witkiewicz--self consciousness
of its drama and highly layered, using masks and video. In the beginning,
Tina Shepard plays all the characters, including her son, Leon, who starts
out as a puppet manipulated by The Mother. As the play progresses, the
doll becomes a live actor, showing how The Mother creates her own destruction.
The other characters have power over her even though she is manipulating
all the dolls. Spy cameras mounted on the dolls show how their perspectives
differ from hers, and with the actors manipulating how you see the video,
there is no feeling, as in other types of plays, that the Video is a separate
element from the acting.
The production employs unusual and original video techniques which were
created by Bilal Khan for this production. Throughout the play, a videographer
is on stage manipulating multiple images, slowing the live footage and
delaying replays, so an actor can actually speak to his own image; the
replay can also be accelerated, so the actor can respond to it. There
are also instances where solo images are recorded--for example, an actor
in motion, where the entire set is blocked out. Then there are multiple
images of the actor in motion projected onto the set, as if to be "dropping
live ghosts." In other instances, an actors falls on the floor and
scrawls information there in handwritten form. The camera picks it up
and the videographer catches the actor reading it and places it under
the action. In the last act, when several people die, they die as one
character and stand up and play another. A back screen shows the layering
of dead bodies piling up without it being on the stage. Even though the
actors have stood up to play another role, their image is "saved"
in the dead character. It's all not your "usual video in play,"
since virtually nothing is pre-recorded. The audience is quite aware of
the actors' ability to manipulate what's on the video, so the focus is
constantly on the story.
The piece was developed over a period of eight months, at first using
dolls instead of actors. Videographer Bilal Khan, who "muscled himself"
into the company after seeing Tumor Brainiowicz numerous times, is now
a full-time member of the troupe, as is dramaturg Inna Giter. The actors
have been involved in the development process since November, some by
special arrangement with Actors Equity Association.
Two Plays by Stanislaw Witkiewicz
The Avant-Garde Gets Polished
by Charles McNulty
April 9 - 15, 2003
he plays of Stanislaw Witkiewicz provide a vertiginous time capsule
of 20th-century European reality. Writing in Poland between the First
and Second World Wars, Witkiewicz occupied a front-row seat to history,
a position that enabled him to anticipate (and travesty) philosophical
and aesthetic trends with uncanny prescience. Yet his fruitful proximity
offered him no protection from the brutality of a civilization run
amok. (Like Walter Benjamin, another human seismograph of cultural
tremors, Witkiewicz killed himself fleeing the Nazis.) Known also
as Witkacy (a shortened moniker he used to distinguish himself from
his artist father), he came to theater via painting, and, as theorist
and practitioner, was in endless pursuit of dreamlike abstraction
onstage. His treatise "An Introduction to the Theory of Pure
Form in the Theater" is a key document in the history of the
avant-garde rebellion against psychological realism. A precursor to
the Absurdists, Witkiewicz aspired to the same metaphysical freedom
that Artaud was independently formulating in Paris and which perhaps
achieved its fullest American expression in the surrealist collages
of Richard Foreman.
Yet for all of Witkiewicz's direct and indirect influence, his
name still elicits cross-eyed stares even among those artists working
within traditions partly indebted to his innovative precedent. Two
rarely seen plays of his—The Mother at La MaMa and The Crazy
Loco-motive at the Classical Theatre of Harlem—provide an
opportunity for the current experimental generation to get better
acquainted with their Polish forerunner. As irrational in their
logic as they are lucid in their conviction, both works invite contemporary
collaboration in materializing their ludicrously fluid theatricality.
Not that the writing isn't carefully composed; it's just that it
radiates an improvisatory energy that draws out the like-minded
madness of anyone in its creative orbit.
This is where Brooke O'Harra, artistic director of the Theatre
of a Two-Headed Calf, excels. Her video-inspired staging of The
Mother conjures a theatrical universe where characters ripple like
pools of water, metamorphosing into the peculiar ether of their
freewheeling story. Dolls and puppets often serve as stand-ins for
characters, and voice-overs occasionally intervene to add to the
unstable flux of deformed figures and heady themes. The effect radically
updates what Witkiewicz (in one of Daniel C. Gerould's invaluable
translations) calls "a whole whose meaning would be defined
only by its purely scenic internal construction, and not by the
demands of consistent psychology and action according to assumptions
from real life."
In an opening-scene parody of Ibsen, a mother (Tina Shepard) sits
knitting in her parlor while complaining to her maid Dorothy (Barbara
Lanciers) about her vampiric son Leon (Jim Fletcher), a good-for-nothing
who lives at home while pondering his long-awaited philosophical
masterpiece. Mother gripes about her lost potential as painter,
musician, and writer of stories, yet also revels in her self-sacrifice—a
conflicted dance that has her cruelly berating her grown boy one
minute, jealously clinging to him the next.
The play, which coalesces around oedipal rage, existential mystery,
and artistic struggle, leaps stylistically from Ibsen's Ghosts to
the expressionist torrent of late Strindberg. Cocaine binges, sexual
orgies, and a dead corpse mysteriously returned to life, however,
mark this as pure Witkiewicz. Nothing is made explicitly clear,
except the questing consciousness prepared to spill even the most
self-eviscerating of secrets. In O'Harra's capable hands, the grotesquely
resonant revelations breathe like three-dimensional neo-cubist paintings.
The Classical Theatre of Harlem's production of The Crazy Locomotive,
a play that erotically meditates on the aesthetics of crime in an
age of mechanized humanity, suffered an opening-night accident that
Witkiewicz would have no doubt understood as the inevitable symbolic
outcome of his art. Half an hour into the 45-minute piece, the stage
caught fire and the audience was forced to leave the smoke-filled
auditorium slightly dazed and choking. Though the incident was easily
contained, the confusion in the house—was this part of the
script?—could have led to a much worse disaster than an unfinished
Witkiewicz is not that much of a joker, however. And clearly, director
Christopher McElroen has too much respect for the text to impose
dangerous special effects. His overall approach, in fact, is one
of hyperactive reverence—a style that works better in broad
outline than in specific detail. As was the case with his recent
revival of The Blacks, the storytelling sacrifices comprehensibility
for exuberance. Consequently, the most vivid thing about the staging
is Anne Lommel's set, which divides the playing area into a raised
platform representing the hellish sanctum of the steam engine and
a separate sidecar holding the passengers. One can only hope that
the ingenious layout survived the blaze unharmed.
Locomotive engineer Siegried (Alfred Preisser) and fireman Nicholas
(Leopold Lowe), both in love with femme fatale Julia (Erica Ball),
decide to suicidally accelerate the train to determine just who
her surviving suitor will be. Of course, this being Witkiewicz,
"the whole unsavory comedy of our existence" is also at
stake. Though the cast's overly manic handling makes things fuzzier
than need be, the bumpy ride theatricalizes the subconscious journey
that the playwright made his fiendishly uncompromising own.
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By Jenny Sandman
One of the most famous members of the pre-WWI Eastern European avant-garde,
Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz was very much ahead of his time. His work
was largely modernist in approach, a precursor to absurdism.
A provocateur, Witkiewicz thought theatre should not be subservient
to reality, and that performance was more important than the text.
He postulated that theatre should not be based on external or psychological
reality but on "pure form," like experimental painting.
The productions of his plays were largely doomed to failure, usually
with bad reviews and only one or two performances each. Though he
wrote over 30 plays (mostly between 1918-1924), ten were lost in
WWII, and only seven were published in his lifetime.
In the late 1920s, Witkiewicz abandoned theatre for fiction and
painting, producing hundreds of paintings and several books and
essays-often done under the influence of various narcotics. His
works were full of inconsistent psychology and logic, metaphysical
anguish, and chronological and spatial anomalies. Suicide, death,
and despair were his leitmotiv, and he was eventually consumed by
his art, committing suicide in 1939.
The Mother is one of his more famous plays. Though it has no true
plot, it involves an alcoholic mother. She loves her son, Leon,
and dotes on him, but also manipulates him. Jewish mothers have
nothing on her for guilt trips. But she is getting old, and is an
alcoholic, and is also a morphine addict-thanks to Leon, who supplies
her with the dope.
Leon is an intellectual, and a revolutionary of sorts. He gets
married, and then the play begins to unravel. They all take cocaine
one night, making the mother go blind and then die. While Leon is
grieving over the corpse, his mother comes back to visit him-as
a young woman, with her young husband (Leon's father). She reveals
that the corpse is really a doll, and then the stagehands come out
to dismantle the set.
Sound confusing? That's not the half of it. Leon and his fiancée
are played variously by themselves and by dolls, which are manipulated
by the mother and then by Leon. Video screens are scattered about
the stage, which play back parts of the play or show different angles
of what's currently happening. The stage manager and the musicians
make appearances within the play. At the end, the "reality"
of the play breaks down completely, as Leon rants and the young
mother looks for a way out of the theatre-while the stagehands are
dismantling everything. Witkiewicz was a genius, but a mad genius,
and his works could be considered an acquired taste. If you are
not already a fan of the avant-garde, Witkiewicz is not for you.
But if you are, The Mother is a rare treat. Tina Shepard is a marvel
as the insane mother, as is Jim Fletcher as Leon. The music, by
Brendan Connelly, is brilliantly discordant. Witkiewicz is not often
performed, and this multimedia production is true to his original
intent. He saw future life as mechanized and soulless; this production,
so jumbled and discontinuous and dependent upon dolls and TVs, would
please him greatly. If you go, don't try to make sense of it; just
sit back and let it wash over you.
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more information and notes on the production see the THEATRE OF A TWO
HEADED CALF website
This production is generously funded by the Polish Cultural Institute.