In the most whimsical moment in the Dutch dance-theater piece "The Laughing Cow," Gonnie Heggen comes out completely covered in a gigantic brown paper bag. As she moves, the bag takes on a personality of its own -- cheerfully tilting, bowing, hopping about.
Then Frans Poelstra -- the other half of this two-person work -- shows up inside a bag twice as tall as Heggen's. Thus appareled in what looks like Fashions by Christo, they perform a dance that quickly evolves into a fight. And needless to say, considering the sound made by crumpling even a normal-sized paper bag, warfare between bags of this scale is as noisy as thunder.
It's also hilarious, inventive and refreshingly self-deprecating. Heggen and Poelstra, who conceived and choreographed this piece, currently at the Theatre Project, are representatives of an extremely rare breed -- performance artists who don't take themselves seriously.
In fact, most of their humor is so charming that "The Laughing Cow" would make a fine presentation for the whole family, except for the nudity at the beginning -- human nudity, that is, not bovine.
This problem of taste might be alleviated with the aid of, let's say, a strategically placed cow bell or two. But more significantly, except for helping establish their individual personas -- she's haughty; he's easily rattled -- the first few scenes seem to back into the piece. Heggen and Poelstra do a little of this and a little of that until they finally get around to -- pardon the expression -- the meat of the matter, which, as the title suggests, is cows.
Wearing cowhide-print jeans, they introduce themselves as two cows named Charles and Bertha who have become bored with their pasture and decide to go on a journey. Poelstra, who identifies himself as "a male cow," provides most of the narration, all of which is in English.
They journey out of the theater; they journey back in, engage in some childish shadow play, climb a beanstalk and get into a duel with wooden swords (she sharpens hers with sandpaper). Then comes the bag scene, the justification for which, we learn in subsequent narration, is that Bertha has become a "bag lady." In the final segment, the deceased Charles and Bertha are reincarnated as Wild West cowpokes (their attitude toward cattle is never revealed).
The ending, like the beginning, seems somewhat random, but maybe that's the point. "The Laughing Cow" isn't really about cows; it's a gentle-spirited spoof of performance art, which is certainly not without its random moments. You have to admire performers with a bold enough sense of humor to name a piece of performance art after a brand of processed cheese. If nothing else, it'll make you think twice the next time you cavalierly crumple up a paper bag.
"The Laughing Cow"
When: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Sundays at 3 p.m. Through March 15.
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.
Call: (410) 752-8558.