Where better to stage a show called You, My Mother than at La MaMa, a space that for so many years served as a womb in which experimental arts could gestate. If La MaMa has been less fertile of late, the 50th Anniversary Season attempts to merge old favorites (Ping Chong, John Jesurun) with newer artists like Two-Headed Calf, which presents this two-part chamber piece courtesy of their opera division.
In You, My Mother—a gentle if oddly abstract endeavor about the relationships between mothers and adult children—director Brooke O’Harra paired writers Kristen Kosmas and Karinne Keithley Syers with composers Rick Burkhardt and Brendan Connelly. Both writer-composer duos rely on the same cast: Two-Headed regulars Laryssa Husiak and Mike Mikos as well as newcomers Beth Griffith and Kate Soper. The teams also share the same musicians: a six-piece, double percussion, double piano, double strings ensemble called Yarn/Wire. Additionally, all were given certain same materials, such as animal suits, slide projectors, and O’Harra’s and Connelly’s family reminiscences.
In the first half, Kosmas’s words and Burkhardt’s music don’t seem to have much to say to each other, perhaps deliberately mirroring difficulties in parent-child communication. Except for a section late in the piece in which the singers re-create “a cruel scene” and another in which they watch blank slides, you’ll likely spend more time watching the musicians. Burkhardt instructs them to approach their instruments in unorthodox ways—plucking at the innards of a piano, thwacking violin strings, bowing a soup can. I’m not sure why soup cans needs bowing, but it’s playful and exciting, if also distracting. The singers, meanwhile, give voice in strangely staccato patterns, deliberately eliding consonants and vowels so that many of the words fail and the content (a mother’s death? children’s disconnection?) flows away on Burkhardt’s jarring notes.
By contrast, Connelly and Keithley Syers supply several passages you could comfortably call songs, sweet and chiming. Keithley Syers’s lyrics here, like her plays, sometimes seem to verge too far in the direction of the whimsical: “The panda’s eye has fallen out./The flying humans have been relegated to the attic.” But the emotions informing them (longing, affection, gentle regret) come through more forcefully than in the first piece, aided by Connelly’s music. Yet here, as in the first piece, there’s an uncertainty, intentional or otherwise, regarding the relation between words and notes, what should be spoken and what should be sung. It might owe to the challenges of being a first-time librettist or to the complexities of the subject matter. Keithley Syer’s last lines seem to suggest the latter. In the play’s final moment she has Husiak trill, “I wanted to say so much more but/ thinking of you makes me quiet.”