Presented by The Club at La MaMa E.T.C. and Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf at La MaMa E.T.C., 74A E. Fourth St., NYC, Feb. 28-March 10.
Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939), a Polish painter and writer who lived and worked between two world wars, is one of the great surrealist dramatists of the 20th century. His work is hardly known in this country, so it is an event of some importance that his 1921 play, "Tumor Brainiowicz," based on the life of German mathematician George Cantor, is having its all-too-brief American premiere at La MaMa, in a translation by noted Witkiewicz scholar Daniel Gerould.
Cantor (1845-1918), who is famous for his controversial attempts to use infinity in equations and set theory, died in a mental institution in 1918. He is an absolutely perfect persona for Witkiewicz's wild, existential Hamlet-like musings, such as "I exist and don't exist. Infinity has devoured my entrails."
The titular character, Tumor Brainiowicz, is performed in a wonderfully weird way by actor Brian Bickerstaff; he manages to look like a living corpse, then begins to twitch in response to lines he hears or delivers, until the twitching turns into spasms, with one of Tumor's legs stomping uncontrollably on the floor. Like old horror movies, the slightest push might turn the action into lunatic farce, but Bickerstaff keeps it all in control.
All the performers—notably Mary Bonner Baker, Jennifer Klein, Misako Takashima, and Mary Regan—are dedicated, intense, and very good. Brooke O'Harra's direction is incredibly inventive, making use of puppets, voice-overs with actors lip-synching, and a fine fusion jazz group (music composed by Brendan Connelly), which gives the entire production a beat. Still, a dense poetic text is not always well served by a surfeit of extravagant stage business that has its own attractions.
Toward the end, Brainiowicz—"prince of numbers, king of infinity"—remains on his knees for some time, frantically scribbling rows of fractions on the wooden floor of the stage, deliciously and ferociously insane. But the concept of a mathematician driven mad by infinity ultimately promises more than the play delivers.