Even though it’s only February, I feel secure in saying that You, My Mother is one of the year’s most interesting and unusual theatrical works. Though it’s called an “opera project” by its creators, a group known as the Two-Headed Calf, that’s only an approximation. The libretto is mostly sung. But it, and the music, and the staging, are all so purposely disjointed that by the time the show has forced us into its surrealist/avant-garde mode we don’t feel that we’re in a familiar artistic environment that we can safely describe as “opera” or even “theater” in the traditional sense.
If that sounds off-putting, it is a little, at first. But Part 1, which is the longer section of the evening, composed by Rick Burkhardt with a libretto by Kristen Kosmas, gives us characters we can latch onto: a mother (Beth Griffith) and two grown children, Helen (Laryssa Huslak) and Dave (Mike Mikos), and after a nervously bizarre introduction a narrative starts to emerge from the anxious, arhythmic music.
Throughout the work, the singers stop and start words in mid-speech, which can be read on an obvious level as representing the difficulty of communication. That theme is brought to the fore in the most arresting scene, in which Helen tries to open up to her mother about her feelings, which relate to a sense of having been overlooked as a child in favor of Dave. “I was saying I’m really sad Mom. I feel really sad and scared and kind of down and depressed and hopeless and lifeless and sort of numb…” But Helen’s painfully difficult delivery of these lines is about as distant from the Woody Allen quality of that particular speech as you can imagine. And the frustrated reply, “I don’t know why Helen but I still can’t hear you,” comes as no surprise.
All this takes place after the show’s funniest sequence, in which Helen is depicted by means of props and percussive surfaces walking several miles around and about the large La Mama theatrical space just to get to her mother’s kitchen. The space also hosts phone conversation, Occupy Wall Street-style “open mic” recitation, a so-named “cruel scene” relating to Helen’s grudge against her mother, simulated sex, and many other striking sequences of sound of movement that alternately mystify and entertain.
The musicians, who also function as characters, are spread about the space to form a dissonant sound environment amid which the action plays out. The percussionists, keyboardists, and two string players look normal but play their instruments in all sorts of outlandish ways – bowing things that aren’t normally bowed, plucking the piano strings, playing the violin with the strings muted, and so on. However, the music takes on a more flowing and harmonic character in Part 2, with music by Brendan Connelly and libretto by Karinne Keithley Syers. This more abstract section consists of sequences inspired by different animals; it relates to the first part in its instrumentation and maternal theme, but otherwise stands as a distinct work. It’s a more visual spectacle, with evocative, primitive costuming and moments of stark musical beauty.
This remarkable show will not appeal to everyone, but anyone with an adventuresome spirit should go. The rewards are mysteriously satisfying. You, My Mother rusn through Feb. 20 at the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La Mama.