THE LIFE AND DEATH OF
TOM THUMB THE GREAT
An Adaptation of Henry Fielding's 18th century classic comedy

The Club
May 13 - June 6, 2004
Thursday – Saturday 10:00pm
Sunday 5:30pm (& 10:00pm on 6th)
Additional performances!
June 5 & 6 at 5:30pm & 10:00pm

Director: Brooke O'Hara
Composer: Brendan Connely
Videography: Bilal Khan
Choreography: Barbara Lanciers
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Costumes: Juliann Kroboth


The Theatre of a Two-headed Calf made an impressive entrance to La MaMa in 2002 with "Tumor Brainiowicz" by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz in 2002 and followed it last year with an equally striking production of "The Mother" by the same author. The troupe's director, Brooke O'Harra and composer, Brendan Connelly, have turned to an unusual classic for their next production. They will stage "The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great," adapted from Henry Fielding's 1730 burlesque comedy, for The Club at La MaMa May 13 to 30.

The adaptation will be not at all traditional. The itsy bitsy hero is played by a potato. The actors wear wooden costumes with video cameras built in, so they are simultaneously filming the play and directing the camera visuals. Finally, the 18th century play has been "translated" by the composer into a language that accentuates the natural percussiveness of English: for example, the h's and k's are emphasized and accompanied by an unfurling percussive musical line. Meanwhile, music is supplied both by offstage musicians and instruments played by the actors themselves.

It would all lead to messy expectations, except that bizarrely intricate modernist productions, exactingly rehearsed and performed with dazzling swiftness, are this troupe's trademark. So is the use of spy cameras mounted on dolls and costumes, showing a perspective different from the characters', with the actors manipulating how you see the video. There is no feeling, as in other types of plays, that the multimedia is a separate element from the acting.

Last season, the Village Voice (Charles McNulty) described the effect of Brooke O'Harra's use of these techniques, writing, "In 0'Harra's capable hands, the grotesquely resonant revelations breathe like three-dimensional neo-cubist paintings." Jenny Sandman write in Curtain Up, " If you go, don't try to make sense of it; just sit back and let it wash over you."

Reviewing "Tumor Brainiowicz" the season before, Backstage (Dan Isaac) called it "an event of some importance " that Witkacy's wild play, with its wild, existential Hamlet-like musings, was being done at all. He particularly praised the "wonderfully weird" rendition of the title character by actor Brian Bickerstaff. The complex, mystifying production was hugely successful and had to be brought back by popular demand. It was NY Resident's Pick of the Week, was featured in "Season's Treatings" in the Village Voice Obies issue, and was generally regarded as a crowd pleaser. ("I had to pee so bad, but I refused to leave," wrote Filip Marinovic in Emergency Gazette.)

O'Harra and Connelly's rendition of "Tragedy of Tragedies, or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great" is a little skewed, but basically faithful to Fielding's linear plot. Tom Thumb is a diminutive hero who has returned from destroying the giants. The king offers rewards and Tom asks for the princess' hand in marriage. From this ensues a series of complicated love plots. People are jilted and vow revenge; a war is fought, rebellion is quashed, celebration follows and Tom Thumb is eaten by a cow. Everyone kills one another. The end. There are new themes developed, though, on the "material value of a hero," and how heroes are "sold" to the public. Since the hero is portrayed as a potato, there is also a "potato text," compiled from excerpts of various theoretical and critical texts concerning the history and material value of the potato, couched in original material written by Cecile Evans and edited by Brooke O'Harra.

The set is designed by the ensemble, and looks like a peep show, with projections appearing on muslin walls and an up-and-down motif. The construction is with raw and recycled materials including unfinished wood, old TV sets and newspapers, to reinforce a theme of consumability and material waste.

The production was workshopped February 10 through February 14 in NYU's Experimental Theatre Wing. The set of that production will be retained, but key members of the cast are new. An intricate history of the production, as well as its text and ample info on Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf's previous productions, is available on the troupe's website, www.twoheadedcalf.org.
Brian Bickerstaff, who played Tumor Brainiowicz in 2002 (and is known for his work with the Collapsibel Giraffe), returns to Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf in the role of King Arthur. Suli Holum, who was singled out for praise in "The Mother" last year (and is known for her work with Pig Iron Theatre) also returns as Glumdalca the Giantess. Last year, Sarah Bonisteel wrote in The Resident, "The cast is talented, but it is Suli Holum's trifecta of performances that stand out. Playing Sophia, the wife of Leon, she transforms herself completely into Mr. Stoneybroke ,Sophia's coughing, sputtering father, and Young Mother with ease. Also notable in the cast is Matthew Stadelmann, whose credits include "Stone Cold Dead Serious" at Edge Theatre Company and two plays by Richard Maxwell. The other actors are Mary Regan, Cecile Evans, David B. Gould, Lula Graves, Lauren Brown, Tatiana Pavela, Matt Shapiro and Matt Berger. Videography is by Bilal Khan, choreography is by Barbaba Lanciers, lighting design is by Justin Townsend and costumes are by Juliann Kroboth.

Director Brooke O'Harra 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. She is a Tulane MFA graduate, has trained with the Bread and Puppet Theater, and is currently an NEA/TCG developing director and a Drama League Directing Fellow. She has been assistant director to Scott Shattuck at the Jean Cocteau Repertory. Although she has directed several other modern classics, she is now identified with her Witkiewicz productions. After "Tom Thumb," she'll stay in English-language productions for a while: she will stage a radical version of Shaw's "Major Barbara" at University of Rochester next year.

Composer Brendan Connelly collaborates steadily with director Brooke O'Harra and is co-founder of Theatre of a Two-headed Calf. His other theatrical work includes "Deux Mariages" (Primary Stages), "The Amargo Trittico" (The Present Company/Juilliard), "Media Machine" (NY Fringe) and "Match" (Lincoln Center). He was a visiting artist at Dartmouth in February. Connelly is also Head of Development of Wet Ink Musics, for which he has written numerous pieces. He will premiere a new work, "Quintet 1," at Tenri Cultural Center this month. He was born in Queens.
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