| 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.
"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
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.