Pretty in Punk

Issue 630 : Oct 25–31, 2007

When people describe the work of the ten-year-old Theater of a Two-Headed Calf, they tend to evoke the scrupulosity of Richard Foreman, the formal daring of the Wooster Group, or the relationship between composer Erik Satie and the notorious French shockeur Albert Jarry. But according to cofounder and resident composer Brendan Connelly, the troupe is much humbler on the inside. “Sometimes it feels like we’re putting on an amateur high-school production,” he admits. “In rehearsal, I’ll be yelling in one corner, [director and cofounder] Brooke [O’Harra] will be talking on her phone, and the actors will be trying to figure out which one of us to listen to. How does anyone take us seriously? We’re managed chaos.”
     Two years of that craziness spawned Drum of the Waves of Horikawa, a mash-up of an 18th-century Kabuki play by Chikamatsu and—almost inevitably, given the rehearsal vibe—’70s punk rock. While the melodramatic plot charges through rapes, suicides and gruesome mob violence, Connelly and his band pound out a score that has roots in classical Japanese sequences, but sounds downright mean when growled out of an electric bass. “If you isolate just one of these cells of Japanese music, it turns into doom metal,” the composer explains. “It’s hilariously somber.” The other musicians hail from postpunk bands; bassist Tony Gedrich is from Stay Fucked, and percussionist Ian Antonio plays with the Zs. Connelly thinks they might stay together past the run of the show. “I love us. Seriously, I think we should gig.”
     While Connelly was busy making what he blithely describes as “sonic hell,” O’Harra was trying to splice together Kabuki physicality and what Brecht might have called the punk gestus. Practically, that meant sending actors home with videotapes of Sid Vicious and the Ramones and asking them to study full-body spasms, guitar shredding and scissor kicks. Then, during an exhaustive process of refinement, the director and her actors turned those fragments into a highly stylized, character-specific movement vocabulary.
     Challenging, text-based and almost nostalgically interested in form, their aesthetic isn’t a typical one for downtown. Instead, the duo feels like a throwback to the early Cunningham and Cage days; they break down chase scenes into component elements to see them out of order, or they chop into the actual language of a text, replacing the English with syllabically related noises—a neo–Pig Latin.
     Theater of a Two-Headed Calf gets its creepy name not from an unhealthy interest in polycephaly, but from a play by iconoclast Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885–1939). For a while, O’Harra and Connelly found themselves doing a lot of Witkiewicz (first The Madman and the Nun, then The Mother with Tina Shepard), and the Polish expressionist-neurotic’s formal experiments greatly influenced their early work. “Now I’m less interested in those ideas, and more interested in narrative,” O’Harra says. “Sure, we like to make layered, sophisticated work, but this piece has made me want to become more audience-friendly. Hell, we played this one in the Catskills…and they loved it.”
     Drum will be O’Harra’s second Kabuki-style show. The first—a rip-snorting version of Major Barbara at La MaMa last year—also fused Japanese instrumentation and shredded kimonos to powerful effect. O’Harra comes by her Japan fetish honestly. She has lived and worked in Tokyo, taking classes in aikido, haunting the Kabuki-za and growing enormously fond of the populist, virtuosic form. But this isn’t some Japanophile’s obsessive re-creation. In fact, the director shies away from calling Drum Kabuki at all. “It would be embarrassing for us to pretend to be doing Kabuki,” she insists. “Real Kabuki performers train for ten years. That’s why we’re reinventing it—movement by movement—for ourselves.”
     Polish formalism? Japanese tonalities? All this may seem like a grab bag of international theatrical languages. But Connelly and O’Harra have experience with bridging cultures: When they first met in the 1990s, across a production table at Tulane University, O’Harra assumed he couldn’t understand her—not because she was so esoteric, but because she thought he was Mexican. “We were working with this Mexican director, and I was fresh off the plane from Japan, and Brendan had this spacey look, and I thought, Poor guy, he can’t understand a word! So afterward, I walked up to him and gave him a big, slow ‘Hola!’ He gave me one weird look and then started chattering at me at high speed. We’ve been working together ever since.”