One of the phenomena of Off-off Broadway last season was “Room for Cream,” a staged soap opera of lesbian life in the Berkshires that previewed at St. Mark’s Church and then moved permanently into The Club at La MaMa, where it attracted capacity crowds of fervent fans for eleven full episodes between January and June, 2008.
The production was a breakthrough event, of sorts, for The Dyke Division of Theatre of the Two-Headed Calf and its director, Brooke O’Harra. From January 22 to February 8, 2009, La MaMa E.T.C. will remount the hit series for those who couldn’t squeeze in or who just can’t get enough of it, with “Room for Cream Season One: The Box Set!”
Eleven episodes will be re-mounted in a repertory schedule over three weekends, with two episodes back-to back per night (the evenings’ average length is 60 minutes). The final chapter, a longer one, will be presented alone. The first weekend will include episodes 1 through 4. The second weekend will include episodes 5 through 8. The final weekend will include episodes 9, 10 and 11. For an episode guide with night-by-night schedule, see: www.jsnyc.com/season/cream_schedule. The show’s website is www.twoheadedcalf.org/shows/cream/cream.html.
Directed by Brooke O’Harra, with episodes written by Jess Barbagallo, Laryssa Husiak, Brooke O’Harra, Brendan Connelly and Laura Berlin Stinger, the live lesbian soap opera was originally mounted over the first half of 2008. (Theatre of the Two-Headed Calf had previously been noted for intrepid adaptations of Shaw and Witkiewicz at La MaMa.) Each chapter took audiences on a witty sojourn to the mythical town of Sappho, Massachusetts where big hearted, often sturdy women gather, most often at a coffeehouse whose name is the series title. With celebrity guests, witty scripts and savvy stage direction by O’Harra, the series galvanized a community of artists who had been waiting to work together for a long time.
There emerged a sense of mission and a sparkle, as the creators realized they were filling a necessary niche by writing parts for lesbian and transgender actors. Audiences responded to the project’s wit, sincerity and depth (rare enough onstage; mostly absent Showtime’s titillating TV counterpart, “The L Word”). The addition of “queer art stars” as celebrity guests added an extra dose of brio. Critics reported that the mixed cast and breakneck schedule engendered a stylized entropy that made for must-see theater. Each episode turned into a “happening” of sorts, geared toward giving the often splintered queer community a place to commune and laugh at itself in a light hearted way. Then, O’Harra says, the undertaking “got bigger than itself very quickly.”
Stylistically, the series forsakes the glam visuals (and clunky dialogue) of “The L Word” for the wheat-free, tofu-fed gentle humor of an Alison Bechdel comic strip. There are the obligatory jealousies, axe-grinding, one-night stands and partner-swapping of the genre. But there’s a lot more good, clean drama: a murdered cop, a kidnapping, a vampire mystery and a documentary film that might or might not get funded. The scripting challenge, according to one writer, Jess Barbagallo, is “getting to write a smarter and more specific script of how a bunch of lesbians might live in an ideal world where they are the majority.”
Off Off Online (Samantha O’Brien) described “Room for Cream” as “Cheers with lesbians and coffee.” The cast was cited for its comic timing and the scripts for their snappy dialogue. The review explained, “the characters’ problems range from tenderly familiar to comically over-the-top….things open with a forbidden love and end in hot pursuit of kidnappers, with some peeping toms, supply-room trysts, and muffins in between. Who knew the Berkshires could be so action-packed?”
Brooklyn Rail (Trish Harnetiaux) reported that “one of the driving forces behind The Dyke Division was to create roles for queer actors. Equally as important was to speak to their community, to find and cultivate their audience…. Though sex and sexual tension are obvious through lines, The Dyke Division seems willing to tackle all sorts of subjects.” Brooke O’Harra was quoted as saying, “The biggest challenge in directing Cream is balance. Every element demands a balance of what we protect and what we let just fly by the seat of its pants. We fluctuate from somewhat realistic to very campy.”
Season One will be re-mounted with much of the same seat-of-the-pants pressures of its first incarnation, since the tighter schedule actually allows less rehearsal time and twice as many episodes will be presented per night. Brooke O’Harra advises, “It will be more like an actual soap–with hidden scripts in furniture, etc.” In a miracle of recapitulation, most of its original roster of regular actors and queer art stars will be preserved.
The core ensemble will include (as of this writing) Moe Angelos, Jess Barbagallo, Becca Blackwell, Nehessaui deGannes, Nina Hoffman, Laryssa Husiak, Cheryl Kingan, Hans Kuzmich, Brooke O’Harra, Rosemary Quinn, Tina Shepard, Laura Stinger and Amber Valentine. Returning special guests will include Trisha Baga, Jibz Cameron, Faye Driscoll, Daphne Fitzpatrick, Kevin Gay, Jill Guidera, Jonathan Mc Crory, Greg Mehrten, K8 Hardy, Georgia Lifsher, Mike Mikos, Tatiana Pavela, Katie Pyle, Heidi Schreck, Wallace Shawn, Marisa Wallen, Casey Weaver, Becky Yamamoto and Sacha Yano. The productions will include set design by Christian Brown, lights by Carla Bosnjak and original compositions by Brendan Connelly. Karina Mangu-Ward is the Executive Producer of the Dyke Division.
Two Headed Calf’s Dyke Division was created specifically for this project and attracted an unusual breadth of collaborators. Notable guest artists in this project vary from visual artists (K8 Hardy), queer Dee-Jays (Amber Valentine) and performance artists (Jibz a.k.a. Dynasty Handbag, Taylor Mac) to a large theatrical cohort including Mo Angeles (5 Lesbian Brothers), Tina Shepard (Talking Band), Wallace Shawn (“My Dinner With Andre,” “Princess Bride,” “The L Word” and playwright) and Becca Blackwell (Circus Amok). That’s not to mention Heidi Schreck, an Obie-winner for Two-Headed Calf’s “Drum of the Waves of Horikawa” who first attracted attention in O’Harra’s La MaMa productions. When the second season begins, it will add Tony Torn, Lisa Kron, Jim Fletcher and Jennifer Miller (Circus Amok).
After this Season One reprise, Season Two is scheduled to click in at La MaMa in February, 2009.
Director Brooke O’Harra has studied and made theatre in Japan, Czech Republic, Poland, Indonesia, and Ghana; she has the theatrical devotion of a religious extremist and the speaking style of a child genius. O’Harra made her La MaMa directorial debut in 2002 with “Tumor Brainiewicz” by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz and co-founded her theater company that year with Brendan Connelly, naming it Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, after a well-known play by the same author. The troupe’s subsequent La MaMa productions have been Witkiewicz’s “The Mother” (2003) and three postmodern adaptations of English-language classics, “Tom Thumb the Great” (2004) and “Major Barbara” (2006).
These works displayed a virtuosity of music, multimedia and intricate stage design, together with highly stylized performances that were developed in extremely long workshop processes. O’Harra cites John Jesurun’s “Chang in a Void Moon” and Jeff Weiss’s Rent Party plays as her inspiration for this project. Initially, “Room for Cream” represented an unusual creative direction for O’Harra–a leap into comedy, realism and a short production cycle all at once. Now it may well be what she is best known for. Her use of the serialized form was foreshadowed with her five-episode production of Chikamatsu’s “Drum of the Waves of Horikawa” (a Japanese Drama from 1705 scored for live Punk Rock) at HERE in 2007.
O’Harra is a recipient of the NEA/TCG Developing Directors Grant and a HARP Artist in Residence and is a Drama League Directing Fellow. She teaches acting at NYU TSOA’s Experimental Theatre Wing. The Theatre of the Two Headed Calf received an Obie Grant in 2008.
“Room for Cream” will be performed January 22 to February 8, 2009 at La MaMa E.T.C. (The Club), 74A East Fourth Street, NYC. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays at 10:00 pm, Sundays at 5:30 pm. An episode guide with night-by-night schedule is available at http://www.jsnyc.com/season/cream_schedule.htm. Tickets are $15. A season pass is $70, good for one performance of each episode. The box office number is (212) 475-7710. Online ticketing is available at www.lamama.org. The show’s website is http://www.twoheadedcalf.org/shows/cream/cream.html.