Major Barbara
The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf
The Annex
January 12 - 29, 2006
Thursday - Saturday 7:30pm
Sunday - 2:30pm & 7:30pm
Tickets $15
Written by George Barnard Shaw
Directed by Brooke O'Harra

Box office 212.475.7710

The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, led by director Brooke O'Harra and composer Brendan Connelly, is perceived as one of the standout young companies to work at La MaMa in recent years. The cast includes longtime Open Theatre member and Two-Headed Calf regular Tina Shepard, Printer’s Devil star Heidi Schreck, and many new young talents.

Read Brooklyn Rail article.

"The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf's Major Barbara is a sparkling, innovative, wholly entertaining evening in the theater" - George Hunka, NYTheatre.com

What happens when George Bernard Shaw, theater’s old-time renegade, meets Japanese Kabuki? Will it be a fight to the death or can these two disparate theatrical forms peacefully and productively co-exist? In this work, The Theatre of a Two-headed Calf melds together the dense political rhetoric of Shaw with the physical and vocal stylizations of Japanese Kabuki and discovers the many ways that, though quite different, these two theater styles, preoccupied as they are with the physicalization of class and gender difference actually inform one another. The infusion of Kabuki’s Aesthetics of Cruelty adds a particular poignance to Shaw’s play, in which Barbara, a Major in the Salvation Army, argues for soul-saving and redemption, while her father, a rich arms manufacturer, argues for the necessity of man’s murderous, freedom-giving abilities.

To those who still think that Kabuki and Shaw are an unlikely combination, a little more explanation is in order: A significant part of director Brooke O'Harra's early theater experience and training was in Japan, and composer Brendan Connelly is also Japanese-influenced, insofar as he tends to focus on directly connecting the score and the onstage action in a way that is essential to Japanese theater. This play was developed simultaneously with a Kabuki Piece by Chikamatsu, "The Drum of the Waves of Horikawa," using the same actors in both projects. The different genres were found to inform each other in surprising ways.

The score in this play functions in much the same way as Kabuki music works: to ornament and describe movemement. Kabuki serves as a fitting metaphor for the violence that is symbolized in Undershaft's munition works and is personified in the character of the bully, Bill Walker. It also presented a vehicle to assimilate Shaw's phonetically-written Cockney dialect into the overall style of the piece, which uses a "layering" of movement, text and sound. The idea is not to Americanize or "contemporize" Kabuki, but to use it to re-think the company's own performance intuitions.

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, often showing a perspective different from the characters', with the actors manipulating how you see the video.

As in most of the productions of Theater of a Two-Headed Calf, the sound coming off the stage is primary: a mixture of new music and dialogue in which the author's text has been broken down to its sounds and sometimes rearranged. Director Brooke O'Harra explains, "Sometimes the characters are in a 'natural state.' In another moment, they go into an 'articulated stance,' which is a Kabuki movement technique. They hit a 'button' pose and use different speech patterns that resemble Kabuki speech patterns. The effect is not to subvert Shaw's language, but to accentuate it. It forces you to listen."

Then there is the matter of tone. The Kabuki vocabulary goes from very high to very low quickly, using explosive syllables. Composer Brendan Connelly has scored the speech using Chinese Opera touches, with nasal tones. But more than that, he has selectively edited the text, in some places removing pronouns. This was done to counteract the tendency in Shaw's phonetically-written cockney passages to "end down." So a line like "I can’t, can’t I?" becomes "Can't can't."

If you think this is a lot of work, you're right. Development of this piece took place over a year and a half, and included two workshop productions, one at Chashama and one at University of Rochester.

The main set design, by Peter Ksander and Justin Townsend, is made from a patchwork of letter-sized white pages bearing 18th-century drawings, that are taped together into huge backdrops. In front of the action is a similarly-built upper and lower wall that forces you to look into the action as if through a slot. The production moves through three spaces in La MaMa's Annex Theater building: the first act, in the theater proper, is a drawing room in which ten feet of stage are viewed through an eight-foot slot. The second act, the Salvation Army scene, is staged on the landing below the lobby. The third act, set in Undershaft's foundry, is back in the Annex Theater, now opened up to expose the dressing rooms.

The production is interspersed with innovative use of video. Through a "pen cam" (a camera focused on Barbara's writing), you see Barbara's notes and doodles as she puts them to paper. A "ceiling cam" shows military formations in the choreography. A "mug cam" is placed in the cups people are drinking from in the Salvation Army shelter.

Overall, the play is cast strictly according to types, but there is one provocative exception: Bill Walker, the bully of the shelter, is played by a small, strong Iraqi-born actress named Nadia Mahdi. Lady Britomart (Tina Shepard) and Major Barbara (Heidi Shreck) are played as extremely forceful women, so the three women onstage offer a very literal interpretation of women's power. The men, however, are played as smooth, easy and innocent: Director Brooke O'Harra says, "Really big power is always like that." The style is applied to all the males onstage, from Undershaft, the most feared cannon-maker in Europe to Cusins, the Greek scholar he appoints to take over his factory.

The actors are: David Brooks*, Lula Graves*, Laryssa Husiak, Bob Jaffe*, Johnny Klein, Tom Lipinski, Nadia Mahdi, Mike Mikos, Tatiana Pavela, Slaney Ross, Tina Shepard*, Heidi Schreck*. (* denotes member of AEA).

Music is performed live by The Scenery Ensemble, which includes Sam Hilmer (saxophone), Matt Hough (electric guitar) and Ian Antonio (drums). All are members of Zs (www.zzzssss.com).

Director is Brooke O'Harra. Composer is Brendan Connelly. Extensive documentation on this production and the previous work of Theater of the Two-Headed Calf can be found at www.twoheadedcalf.org.

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