Trifles: Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf polishes Susan Glaspell's stylish gem

Issue 749 : February 4–10, 2010

     It's unfortunate but true: Just the mention of Susan Glaspell's 1916 Trifles makes some of us sit up straight. Theater students typically encounter her as the token lady writer on a syllabus, and somehow a schoolroom fustiness attaches to her in a way that it doesn't to her contemporary (and friend) Eugene O'Neill. But Glaspell was no fuddy-duddy. She wrote patterns of silence that would have made Harold Pinter proud; she brought a crime journalist's hardheadedness and sharp feminist elbows into the fight for new forms. She wasn't a schoolmarm—she was a rock star. And so Brooke O'Harra and Brendan Connelly, the formalist scamps behind the Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, have turned her masterpiece into a nonsingers' mini-opera, something spare and strange and very, very new.
     On Peter Ksander's melancholy set—a pipe-and-joint skeleton of a kitchen—and bathed in Justin Townsend's vivid undersea light, men and women engage in a silent contest. An imprisoned housewife stands accused of murdering her husband, and while the menfolk stomp around her house looking for clues, two deferential women (Caitlin McDonough-Thayer and Laryssa Husiak) quietly notice the "trifles"—a row of uneven stitches, a burst jam jar—that tell the real tale. Connelly's vibraphone-and-piano score rings eerily, but it too is only part of the story. The text itself has been approached as counterpoint, so long pauses, timed exhalations and uncanny choral hums all turn the spoken elements into music. It's a thrilling project, and the show can be enormously affecting. Unfortunately, it also demands watchmaker perfection from its actors, and perhaps in a future incarnation, that trifle will be attended to.