Reviewed by Will Stackman
Described as a "theatrical collage" by its esteemed playwright, Charles Mee, "bobrauschenbergamerica" is another example of his reinterpreting earlier work from unlikely sources. His previous effort seen the ART was "Snow in June" loosely adapted from a 13th Century Peking opera, which staged his takeoff on Brecht's "Chalk Circle" earlier. In this instance, Mee's provided text and incidents, incidentally inspired by the works of iconic American artist, Robert Rauschenberg for director Anne Bogart and her SITI company to play with. The result is a highly professional theatrical miscellany, very reminiscent of the freeform theatricality of "happenings" and performance art which sprang up in the '60s in New York. This kind of avant-garde variety show still continues at Off and Off-Off Broadway as a kind of retro kitsch by groups such as the Onotlogical-Hysterical Theatre. The SITI performers' physical style and Bogart's imagination make this hour and forty-five minutes without intermission watchable on a superficial level as sensationalism only peripherally connected with meaning.
The show premiered at Humana in Spring 2001 and as the world--read the audience--has changed seems to have taken on a kind of unanticipated depth, as collages rooted in artifacts from a specific time-period often do. It's also taken on a curious reverence for Rauschenberg's miscellany, the response of a transplanted Midwesterner to NYC's profligate culture which helped spawn the '60s. The SITI performers are very adept at drawing on stereotypes and playing incongruities, suggesting that something banal might have meaning, but leaving it to the observer to decide. It's rather like taking a long ride on the subway and imagining where one's fellow passengers might be going. Set and costumes by James Shuette have their own iconic values, from Akiko Aizawa's pink two piece bathing suit as Phil's Girl to J. Ed Araiza's ragged raincoat and barefeet as a derelict who lives in a cardboard box. The backdrop, which spills onto the floor is a stylized America flag with light bulbs in the stars and a screen door built into the stripes.
Various members of SITI bring their several talents to the show. FalstaffianLeon Ingulsrud makes an impression as Phil, the trucker, finishing the text with a routine of chicken jokes built around the bawdy implications of "Who came first?" But the scene which mesmerizes the audience is performed by Tom Nelis or Daniel Parker as Bob the Pizza Boy, an admitted mass-murderer and evident psychotic. (Members of the larger SITI company take some of the roles on different nights.) "Bob" also has a silent role in a somewhat homemade chicken suit. Another constant character is Bob's Mom, played by Kelley Maurer, whose regular refrain reminds the audience that art played no part in their homelife. There's also Jennifer Taher who rollerskates through the show dressed in a cheerleading outfit. She doesn't speak. Dancer Barney O'Hanlon, part of a gay couple embedded in the whole assemblage of "bobrauschenbergamerica" does, quite eloquently if anticlimactically.
It's all very entertaining. Invoking Rauschenberg may however be extraneous. If anything, the art world he--and others from the Beat Generation on--were rebelling against has become highly fragmented to go along with an American society equally variegated. The '60s won't come again. The current national trauma may result from an electorate which wants to go even further back and politicians unable to move forward, but these days "Stuff Happens." Much the same effect might be achieved by turning an adept improv troupe loose on the media, with updates from the nightly news. "bobrauschenbergamerica" claims to make reference to the violence inherent in this society, but its theatrical optimism results in a continuous series of false endings. "Life goes on" isn't a very profound moral.