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A CurtainUp Review

The Mother
By Jenny Sandman

This is barren metaphysical suffering in the fourth dimension.
Tina Shepard as the  mother; Suli Holum as the fiancee's father
Tina Shepard as the mother; Suli Holum as the fiancee's father (Photo: Adair Iacono )
One of the most famous members of the pre-WWI Eastern European avant-garde, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz was very much ahead of his time. His work was largely modernist in approach, a precursor to absurdism.

A provocateur, Witkiewicz thought theatre should not be subservient to reality, and that performance was more important than the text. He postulated that theatre should not be based on external or psychological reality but on "pure form," like experimental painting. The productions of his plays were largely doomed to failure, usually with bad reviews and only one or two performances each. Though he wrote over 30 plays (mostly between 1918-1924), ten were lost in WWII, and only seven were published in his lifetime.

In the late 1920s, Witkiewicz abandoned theatre for fiction and painting, producing hundreds of paintings and several books and essays-often done under the influence of various narcotics. His works were full of inconsistent psychology and logic, metaphysical anguish, and chronological and spatial anomalies. Suicide, death, and despair were his leitmotiv, and he was eventually consumed by his art, committing suicide in 1939.

The Mother is one of his more famous plays. Though it has no true plot, it involves an alcoholic mother. She loves her son, Leon, and dotes on him, but also manipulates him. Jewish mothers have nothing on her for guilt trips. But she is getting old, and is an alcoholic, and is also a morphine addict-thanks to Leon, who supplies her with the dope.

Leon is an intellectual, and a revolutionary of sorts. He gets married, and then the play begins to unravel. They all take cocaine one night, making the mother go blind and then die. While Leon is grieving over the corpse, his mother comes back to visit him-as a young woman, with her young husband (Leon's father). She reveals that the corpse is really a doll, and then the stagehands come out to dismantle the set.

Sound confusing? That's not the half of it. Leon and his fiancée are played variously by themselves and by dolls, which are manipulated by the mother and then by Leon. Video screens are scattered about the stage, which play back parts of the play or show different angles of what's currently happening. The stage manager and the musicians make appearances within the play. At the end, the "reality" of the play breaks down completely, as Leon rants and the young mother looks for a way out of the theatre-while the stagehands are dismantling everything. Witkiewicz was a genius, but a mad genius, and his works could be considered an acquired taste. If you are not already a fan of the avant-garde, Witkiewicz is not for you.

But if you are, The Mother is a rare treat. Tina Shepard is a marvel as the insane mother, as is Jim Fletcher as Leon. The music, by Brendan Connelly, is brilliantly discordant. Witkiewicz is not often performed, and this multimedia production is true to his original intent. He saw future life as mechanized and soulless; this production, so jumbled and discontinuous and dependent upon dolls and TVs, would please him greatly. If you go, don't try to make sense of it; just sit back and let it wash over you.

The Mother
By S.I. Witkiewicz
Translated by Daniel Gerould and C.S. Durer
Directed by Brooke O'Harra
With Tina Shepard, Jim Fletcher, Suli Holum, Barbara Lanciers, Wilson Hall, Nicky Paraiso and Zakia Babb
Costume Design by Audrey Robinson
Lighting Design by Michael Phillips
Music by Brendan Connelly
Video by Bilal Khan
Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf
LaMama ETC, 74 East 4th Street
Th-Sat at 10:00 pm, 5:30 pm Sun-- $15 or $12 members/tdf Box office (212) 475-7710; on-line ticketing available Through April 13
Running time 1:20, with no intermission
Review by Jenny Sandman based on March 30 performance

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