bobrauschenbergamerica: [Inside] the Ford, 2/11/10

12 02 2010

A stage cluttered with floating windows, a stand-alone screen door, a rusty old bathtub, cardboard artwork, and random objects of Americana, is suddenly flooded by music, light, and bodies: a Southern mother, an idyllic 1950s couple, a roller skater carrying a bright red umbrella, a hippie, a trucker, a bum …

The Spy Ants’ production of bobrauschenbergamerica has racked up an impressive number of reviews on Bitter Lemons recently – and has raised interesting questions about the avant-garde and meaning-making in theater. With all these circulating debates, including some admissions of absolute confoundment (“Okay, I give up. Obviously, I didn’t get it.), I expected a more experimental show last night – but I was delighted with what I saw.  Audience members expecting a biographical account of artist Robert Rauschenberg’s life may be disappointed at first, but what spectators receive is much more compelling: a vibrant invitation to make meaning, to explore unexpected connections among props, dance, music, dialogue, media, and more in this postmodern Charles Mee play.  Though the show may feel like disparate sketches to some, everything is connected as the narrator (presumably Rauschenberg himself) suggests.  “You’re always gonna be moving somewhere so don’t worry about it. See?”

In the show’s spirit, I don’t want to pin down meaning.  Instead, I want to offer some bullet-point thoughts that this production triggered.  For me, the play’s strands overlapped in the construction of American identity: the postmodern America’s “Disney-fied,” surface-level, pop culture history.  (Check out Frederick Jameson’s Postmodernism if you want the theory.)  For my roommate Roxanne, the strands connected a little differently – into a more coherent narrative about community, created from what she calls “SNL-like” sketches.  (I think the media connection is very apt!)  The strands are bound to connect differently for every spectator – so take a friend!  Here are a few interpretative thoughts from my perspective:

  • In addition to all the clutter of Americana onstage (in a fantastic set design by Marina Mouhibian), Mee creates a temporal collapse of representative time periods in America’s history on stage: the perfect 50s couple, the hippie, the roller girl. These are not “developed” or “rounded” characters but symbols, representations of America.  Aside from the man in the 50s couple, it is telling that this burden of representation falls on women – who have long been the mythic preservers of national identity, due to their associations with domesticity and tradition.  It is also telling that all these representations are drawn from the TV era … post-WWII, when media began pervading the home … but more on that later.
  • I especially loved the dynamic shifts in music and dance, which are also highly constructive of American identity.  Background music includes everything from American pop-rock to Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and the ensemble spontaneously breaks out into crooner love songs and square dances.  I loved the amateur quality of the dances: what is important about “being an American” in this context is the mythic community created through participation, not necessarily skill.  (See Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!)
  • Bob’s mom is a lovely Southern character whose accent and speech patterns reminded me a bit of my own grandmother back in NC.  She describes pictures of Bob as a child, which are projected onto the back wall – but the photos and her descriptions are intentionally disjunct. Ripped from anything like “actual history,” they are representations only – nostalgic images of a past that never was.
  • Media perpetuates surface representations and pop culture history.  (This part of the show felt particularly relevant, seeing as the Ford is located in Hollywood – so close to Universal Studios!)  A TV sits at the front of the stage, “mediating” most of the production.  The bum’s idea for a movie includes countless offensive stereotypes of “other” ethnicities that make up America, represented by the all-white cast. And when you tell your Valentine “I love you” this weekend, you might want to rethink whether your words and feelings are really your own. Chances are, you learned how to “love in that way” from a movie – like Susan and Wilson (the 1950s couple) and Allen and Carl (the gay couple), who share exactly the same pre-scripted professions of love.
  • America is fascinated by science, time and space, and the future.  We can try to predict and project, but – as Allen points out – we can never see the future or even the present, only a reflection of the past.  Look at yourself in a mirror.  “The light has to go from you to the mirror and from the mirror to your eye. So it leaves you, goes to the mirror and comes back. So whenever you see yourself, you see yourself a little earlier.”  Interesting.
  • America is a nation of excess: sex, baby oil, cake and pie, violence, nostalgic clutter. And chickens.  America loves chickens and all their valences of meaning: from farming to food to reproduction to bad jokes. Why did the chicken cross the stage?

Bob’s mom talks about how art (or more accurately Art, with a capital A) was never part of their lives.  But as bobrauschenbergamerica shows, “art” is not so easily separated from the realm of “real life.”  Everything is connected – and Rauschenberg found artistic inspiration precisely in these fragments of Americana.  This theatrical representation of Rauschenberg’s creative universe arguably tells you more about Rauschenberg’s art than a traditional bio-play could ever narrate.  Bart DeLorenzo’s direction keeps up a dynamic, ever-shifting pace that constantly engages the audience.  With vibrant performances from everyone in the ensemble (and a special nod to Brett Hren as Becker, whose “Walt Whitman” speech is riveting), bobrauschenbergamerica captivated my imagination and set my mind spinning. Yet this spinning wasn’t a frustrating demand to make meaning. Throughout the production, my mind was relaxed, at ease, unworried: taking in this postmodern clutter of a world with a great deal of interest and laughter at each turn. “OK!  That feels good to me.”




One response

13 02 2010

[…] a world with a great deal of interest and laughter at each turn. “OK! That feels good to me.” Sarah Taylor Ellis – Compositions on Theatre Filed under review Tags: backstage, buzzine, charles mcnulty, clare elfman, compositions on […]

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