Shaw, Kabuki, Eva Peron: The Usual Mix
Issue Date: June 25, 2006
TO get to the semi-renovated Brooklyn loft where the Theater of a Two-Headed Calf holds its monthly gatherings, guests have to walk up two flights of dilapidated stairs. The elevator is broken. But that has not deterred the 100 or so artists, writers and musicians who have gathered on this spring evening to drink, talk, watch and maybe perform. The night is devoted to performances by Argentine artists, and various actresses are mimicking the motions of Eva Peron, whose giant image is projected on a screen behind them.
In one corner of the loft, in the Dumbo neighborhood, stands a large object, a sculpture by Dolores Zorreguieta that looks like a red leatherette piano cover. In another spot stands Brooke O'Harra, a founder of the troupe and a host of the evening. Ms. O'Harra, thin, with slightly disheveled light brown hair, is having a New York moment.
"Their monthly salons have become significant events," said Vallejo Gantner, artistic director of the downtown performance mecca P.S. 122. Being a cultural "it" girl may seem a bit odd for someone who has called herself and her troupe outcasts from the downtown New York theater scene. But Two-Headed Calf, or 2HC for short, is making its mark.
"Their energy, commitment to the work they're generating and openness to new process and forms of theater is outstanding," Mr. Gantner added. "The company is fantastically active and fearless."
The experimental director Anne Bogart echoed Mr. Gantner's praise. Ms. O'Harra is "serious, adventurous, courageous, and actors love working with her," she said. "She is developing a following. Audiences are challenged and stimulated by the shows. I'm looking forward to watching her thrash through the American theater scene."
Two-Headed Calf is different from some of the other avant-garde theater groups that have captured the imagination and attention of critics and audiences. While the troupe is renowned for its performance style — a mix of abstract design, Kabuki-based movement, technology and live original music — its productions always begin with something other companies often skip: a written play.
"I feel like a super-ultra-nerd next to a lot of downtown avant-garde theater groups like Radiohole or Collapsible Giraffe," which usually create their texts through montage rather than relying on a single playwright, Ms. O'Harra confessed. "We're never going to be like those guys."
For a while those differences kept Ms. O'Harra somewhat on the fringes. "Until this year I had very few friends who were theater artists, except those who were in their 40's or 50's," said Ms. O'Harra, 32, explaining that her theatrical tastes were out of step with her own generation of stage artists.
Ms. O'Harra, who has also studied in Japan and Poland, was at Tulane University in New Orleans studying for her master's in directing in 1997 when she met the troupe's other founder, Brendan Connelly, a composer, as well as some of its other original members. Mr. Connelly was studying creative writing and music, and the two began to collaborate with a handful of other students. Ms. O'Harra considers that the official birth of the troupe, which now includes Justin Townsend and Peter Ksander (designers), Michael Phillips (videographer), Barb Lanciers (choreographer), and Heidi Schreck and Mike Mikos (performers).
Still, the collective did not have a name until 2001, when it put on a production of the Polish surrealist Stanislaw Witkiewicz's "Tumor Brainiowicz" in an empty Times Square shoe store. (The name Two-Headed Calf comes from the title of another Witkiewicz play.) Word spread quickly, and the run was a success.
Earlier this year the troupe's Kabuki-influenced "Major Barbara" drew critical praise. Although Andrea Stevens, writing in The New York Times, said there was much in the play that did not work, she also noted, "There is something true and real that shines out from the director Brooke O'Harra's version."
Like many other shoestring theater groups, 2HC does not have a building. "We make do with what we can get for free rehearsal space." Ms. O'Harra said. "There's a church we're negotiating to use in exchange for gardening duties, or getting groceries for members of the congregation." As for providing stages for their full productions, the group relies on friends: 2HC is an "artist in residence" at the Here Arts Center performance space, and La MaMa's Ellen Stewart became a stalwart supporter early on.
"From Day 1, Ellen Stewart and La MaMa have been there for us," Ms. O'Harra said. "We owe so much to them. When we were planning 'Major Barbara' in late 2004, Ellen said to me, 'Baby, I'll give you anything you want.' I said, 'I want a show in the Annex,' " La MaMa's largest performance space. Ms. Stewart's response? "Baby, you can have a show in the Annex; you deserve it," Ms. O'Harra recalled. "So we already knew, over a year before, that we'd have a stage at La MaMa in January 2006."
At the moment the group is pressing ahead with three projects: a production of "El Panico" by the Argentine playwright Rafael Spregelburd for P.S. 122's "Buenos Aires in Translation" festival in November; a punk- and Preston Sturges-inflected production of Chikamatsu's 17th-century Kabuki play "The Drum of the Waves of Horikawa," opening next year; and commissions for four composers to work with playwrights, including Mac Wellman and Anne Washburn, on new one-act operas.
The company's development process is longer than many other troupes' (for instance 15 months for "Major Barbara"), so participants have to be willing to commit a large amount of time and energy to productions that combine many disparate pieces. But the actors say it is worth it.
"I like being part of a collective that completely subverts all my usual ways of approaching a play," said Ms. Schreck, who played the title role in "Major Barbara." "With 2HC I've found a sense of freedom in performing that I hadn't felt since I was a child. It's thrilling to be allowed to go so outrageously far — physically, vocally, interpretively — to test the boundaries of what the play can contain. Brendan and Brooke's shows are uniquely alive because of this, because everyone is putting so much on the line. We are aggressively risking making fools of ourselves. It's delicious. There's joy in it, and humility. It's fun."
Ms. O'Harra said she and her colleagues often look to 1950's New York City as a model, a time when artists intermingled and influenced one another's work in poetry, visual art and music. "When I think of the kind of artistic life I want to emulate, I often think of poets and painters," Ms. Schreck said. "I think of Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery and Grace Hartigan."
Ms. O'Harra talked about their circle. "Jim Drain, a visual artist, is one of the our biggest supporters," she said. "We're really intimate with artists and poets, and that's our world. They come to our plays, and they're people who never go to plays." She added, "We get more support from artists in other media, financially and artistically and as an audience base, than we do from other theater artists."
"A lot of the time all you see at play readings are other playwrights, all you see at concerts are other musicians and composers," she continued. "We got to thinking: 'How do we combine all these worlds? How can we get these people together, who otherwise would never meet?' "
The answer was the salons. The monthly gatherings are the troupe's way of saying thank you to this audience for its support.