My Kingdom for a Potato!

Issue Date: May 13, 2004

The main character in this adaptation of Henry Fielding's 1730 sex comedy is played by various members of the Theatre of a Two-headed Calf, vigorously shaking a potato and reciting the potato's lines. It is for this reason among many others that makes this young ensemble a promising force for experimental theatre.
     Tom Thumb cleverly examines how notions of excess and politics have warped our contemporary practice of hero worship through its vegetable-protagonist. The narrative of the piece is interrupted throughout by various meditations on the history and value of the potato. Pointing to its ubiquity, simplicity and abundance, the potato is the tie that binds, the root of culture. Why shouldn't a potato be the hero then in a world of politicians, teen movie stars, and American Idols? It seems overqualified, really.
     More importantly, though, the potato signifies nothing, as the director points out. This is astoundingly reflected by Brendan Connelly's "translation" of the play, which is meant to emphasize the percussiveness of Fielding's language, reducing the text to a barely recognizable form of English. Exquisitely executed by the cast in melodramatic scenes and musical numbers alike, they are accompanied by a skilled music and noise score. The sets and costumes are made almost entirely of newspaper, which further establishes both the generative and recycled nature of language in the media. To bring their point home, the ensemble is equipped with an array of strategically-placed spy cameras on costumes, hands, and quirky structural contraptions that decorate the stage to further mediate the audience's experience and play with the complicated points of view in the story.
     It is without a doubt that this is one of the most brilliant displays of technical mastery that Off-Off Broadway has seen, in both design and performance. However, the Theatre of a Two-headed Calf has become so slick that they don't know what to do with themselves. In creating this intricately choreographed performance, director Brooke O Hara seems to have lost sight of the holistic and absurd avant-garde that made the group's previous productions, Tumor Brainiowicz and The Mother, so phenomenal. The show's weakest points are when the Orator (Cecile Evans) interrupts the action, asks the cast to go back (in a transparently contrived manner), and replay portions of the show in a completely comprehensible vernacular, which is condescending to the audience, unnecessary given the strength of the performers, and destructive to the effects of Connelly's marvelous onomatopoeic text.
     While overreaching in artistic ambition, I attribute the shortcomings of Tom Thumb to the company's growing pains. They are finding a unique and jolting voice that will be an important presence in the world of performance in the future by taking important risks and creating novel experiments today. The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great, though a bit starchy, is definitely satisfying and nutritious.