Friday, January 29, 2010

bobrauschenbergamerica at [Inside] The Ford

I read this play very soon after hearing about Charles Mee presenting it at Humana way back in 2001 (you can too, of course, by clicking here). At the time I'd had a passing understanding of Robert Rauschenberg's work but I don't recall how much I'd actually seen. Mee was very much in vogue at the time; a director friend of mine was obsessed with Big Love and determined to stage it somewhere. Mee's website seemed innovative as well, with him offering complete access to his plays on the internet. It was a real treat to read about a play premiering in some other state and then be able to click on the author's website and read the whole thing. I even taught another of his plays, First Love, in a playwriting class. I wrote the web address on the chalkboard and told the students to read that for the next class discussion.

That said, I've always been ambivalent about his plays; there are luminous bits of writing in them, and the spirit of play is always at the forefront, making performance an adventure. They're also somewhat confounding to me -- bursting at the seams in such a heady pastiche I often have trouble getting my bearings.

I'm sure that's how I felt when I read bobrauschenbergamerica the first time. The only thing I could remember from reading the text was the funny/scary speech towards the end of the script by the Pizza Delivery Guy; it made such an impact I suggested an actor friend check it out for an audition monologue.

I can happily say that I felt no such ambivalence about the play upon seeing it last night. We have the comprehensive MOCA exhibition from 2006, Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, to thank for that.

JW and I saw that show to the point of exhaustion. We went multiple times, by ourselves, together; I remember taking friends on at least two occasions. I don't know that we were exactly obsessed, but it just seemed at the time like such a necessary event. Are you visiting from out-of-town? Hey, look! There's the Hollywood Sign! And of course we HAVE to see the Rauschenberg show at MOCA.

(God I just felt like Ouisa from Six Degrees of Separation as I typed that.)

In all seriousness, though, it really did feel like required viewing, and in those multiple viewings I was able to get a strong sense of both the artist's personal history and some of the recurring motifs. It's actually too bad The SpyAnts had to wait over three years after the exhibit to present the play (apparently they've been trying to get the rights for eight years); a pairing of the two would be a perfect all-day cultural event.

It was with that memory of the 2006 exhibit that I sat down to watch bobrauschenbergamerica, and I was richly rewarded by the experience. The playwright seems a perfect match for his subject; his pastiche style melds with the artist's, and he clearly knows his stuff. Watching the show felt very much like viewing a collection of the artist's work; themes echo through the piece, with comic bird (specifically chicken) references providing laughs as well as more serious metaphors for flight (both found in Rauschenberg's combines). Those in turn complement the clumsily committed dancing of Carl (Mark Slater, who plays the closest thing to a Rauschenberg stand-in I can find in the production, complete with a lovely Texas accent), which evokes the gentle, messy whimsy of his art while reminding of the working relationship between Rauschenberg and dance legend Merce Cunningham. Sweet (and bittersweet) monologues from a character named Bob's Mom (Mari Marks, who gave just about my favorite performance in the show) evoke literal biography in homey, super-specific ways, serving more to provide the "America" that produced the artist than educate us on his early life.

This America is what the play is all about, as the title suggests. Characters appear as archetypes as much as they do expressions of American individualism; homoeroticism is accentuated not just for its biographical resonance but as another of its expressions. It's a 20th-century America, to be sure (even if Walt Whitman is included), what with the duality of wonder and terror found in scientist Allen's monologues about the future, the stars, and Los Alamos.

After I typed this, I clicked over to the webpage where the script was located; I'd scrolled down to look for a pertinent passage from Allen and left it where it was, and when I clicked back I read below it and found this stage direction from Mee:

A country music song slams into the piece--
remember what country music does, how american it is, how it adds automatically themes of love, betrayal, a hundred story lines enter the piece with country music
I love that.

And I loved bobrauschenbergamerica. It's not without its flaws. It might frustrate more traditional theater-goers. But I don't know. As non-linear and seemingly chaotic as it is, it's also familiar, ingratiating, exuberant. Bart DeLorenzo made some strong directorial choices with the piece -- the most interesting being his turning of this stage direction --

Carl dives over and over again into a pile of laundry
while we hear an operatic aria. After a while, Carl exits.
-- into a homoerotic dance of longing and exposure, with Carl caressing a man's shirt as Bob's Mom looks on, unseen by him. This is just one of the many ways in which Carl seems a stand-in for the artist, a choice that, if not entirely implicit in the text, makes perfect sense in this show. It's just one of the ways DeLorenzo brings added layers of meaning to the play (as Mee encourages in his text), and it makes for a nice balance of wildness and pathos, playfulness and seriousness, all abundant in Rauschenberg's work and welcome in this tribute to him.

I recommend anyone who saw that MOCA show go check out this play. If you didn't make it to that, go to MOCA's new show, MOCA's First Thirty Years, and then go. I think LACMA also has his work up in the Broad, so you could check it out there as well.

1 comment:

EM Lewis said...

Excellent post! I have gotten very interested in Rauschenberg in the last few years, and also, then, in Jasper Johns' work... I'm seeing bobrauschenbergamerica at the end of the month, and am really looking forward to it. Even more so now!