nytheatre.com review by George Hunka
January 12, 2006
Thank God for the Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, a dynamic, incisive collective of directors, composers, performers, and designers exploring Japanese theater techniques in the Western drama. In the past, they’ve explored work by the Polish experimentalist Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz and the notorious pataphysician Alfred Jarry. Taking on a more traditional playwright like Bernard Shaw, they have their work cut out for them. Director Brooke O’Harra and composer Brendan Connelly have painstakingly integrated Kabuki design, physical and vocal techniques, and a percussive underscore into Shaw’s 1905 work Major Barbara in this exciting new production. Though the marriage is not as tense and bumpy as that of Andrew Undershaft and wife Lady Britomart, the domestic principals of the play, the melding of theatrical approaches is unable to entirely eradicate the problems of Shaw’s pedestrian stagecraft—largely the fault, as this fully-engaging production demonstrates, of the playwright.
It’s decision time at the Undershaft household: munitions manufacturer Andrew Undershaft needs to determine which of his children should carry on the family business, and the options are grim. Son Stephen is a mewling mother’s boy, without a shred of personality; daughter Sarah is about to marry a blinkered doofus; and, worst, daughter Barbara has become a major in the Salvation Army and aims to save the world from itself. Connoisseurs of Shavian paradoxical wit will quickly recognize Major Barbara as one of the most characteristic works of the canon: long stagebound arguments lit up by rhetorical fireworks, delivered with mellifluous British accents in attractive drawing rooms. Major Barbara is also, sad to say, one of the least visually-imaginative of Shaw’s plays, lacking the physical farce of Arms and the Man and even the thoughtful, evocative stage pictures of Saint Joan.
And this is where the mastery of the Two-Headed Calf’s production comes in. For two-thirds of this production, the performances and staging are exciting, even electric. Not long into the first act, staged in the upstairs space at La MaMa’s Annex Theater, the cast begins to break the predictable cadences of the Shavian sentences by exploring asyncopated rhythms in them, unexpectedly emphasizing portions of some words over others, accompanied by a percussion player at the side of the stage; the Kabuki technique of stylizing social gestures is especially relevant to Shaw’s social satire, as members of the family, waiting for the father’s arrival, busy themselves in repetitive domestic movements like lighting a pipe.
The second act, staged in the downstairs lobby of the Annex (“please keep your belongings with you,” the program suggests), is the gem of the evening, though: Undershaft visits Barbara’s Salvation Army storefront and mingles with a stereotyped cast of society’s misfits, attractively costumed in Kabuki tradition by Tara Webb (whose costumes for the rest of the production are similarly evocative, from Undershaft’s red cravat to Barbara’s militaristic buttoned top and long brown skirt). O’Harra’s direction is especially daring here; the audience is never more than mere inches from the action, and the broad, violent stylized movements of the scene (especially those of Nadia Mahdi as Bill Walker, a sociopathic pugilist) mean that the audience is drawn in at some physical risk. But all this is most precisely choreographed, the silences and stillnesses all the more affecting for the underlying sadness they suggest.
The third act returns to the upstairs space, and as the characters visit Undershaft’s munitions factory, the stylized backdrop rises to reveal the deepest cavernous recesses of La MaMa’s space, the grandeur of which encourages the characters to play in the space like children; because this is a munitions factory, they play war games. And here, unfortunately, director Brooke O’Harra runs right in the face of Shaw’s ironic speechifying, in this play at its most turgid, and the final 15 minutes or so of the play are delivered by Undershaft, Barbara, and Barbara’s fiancé Cusins straight out to the audience: Shaw’s defeated directors before, and in the concluding moments of the evening Shaw defeats O’Harra too.
But let it be said that this is merely the last quarter-hour of the play; the preceding two-and-a-half hours are among the most entertaining, imaginative, and dynamic productions of Shaw I’ve ever seen. Apart from O’Harra’s direction, not a gesture of which is superfluous or carelessly conceived, the music of Brendan Connelly and the four-member ensemble threads effortlessly through the production, from the underscore to the original songs in the second act, written by the band LOW. Standing out among the large and precise cast are Bob Jaffe’s Andrew Undershaft (who here resembles a satanic Steven Keaton from the old comedy Family Ties) and the aforementioned Nadia Mahdi, but the evening is especially a triumph for Heidi Schreck, who as Barbara careens through the difficult role’s character changes—from vulnerability to fear to dismay to strength and happiness, then back to vulnerability again—with utter conviction, her face and body exhibiting stony strength and trembling uncertainty at the same time. In smaller roles, Johnny Klein delivers an amusingly hangdog performance as indigent Snobby Price and Slaney Chadwick Ross as Barbara’s hopelessly overwhelmed and diminutive assistant Jenny Hill is funny and charming, even when her arm is ripped off in the middle of act two. (You really have to see it.)
Some of it doesn’t work: the use of video, though sometimes cute and jokey (there are cameras hidden in coffee mugs and on the tips of pens), isn’t fully integrated into the overall directorial conception and doesn’t add appreciably to the experience of the show, which would get on just as well without it. But on the whole, if Shaw’s plays are to enter the 21st century with all the relevance and comic intensity with which they energized the English stage of the early 20th century, O’Harra and the Two-Headed Calf company can lead the way, suggesting new perspectives and approaches. The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf’s Major Barbara is a sparkling, innovative, wholly entertaining evening in the theater, and at $15, perhaps the best stage bargain in New York this month.