Having Your Cage
By Martin Harries
By Charles Mee
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St., Brooklyn
Box office: (718) 636-4100
In Robert Rauschenberg's assemblage "Monogram,"
a long-haired Angora goat stands on a collage of painted panels.
A tire hangs around the goat's neck. Remembering the goat that
may lurk in the etymology of "tragedy," critics have suggested
that "Monogram" is Rauschenberg's enigmatic image of the tragic,
and that the tire is the load the scapegoat carries. The news
from BAM? Enough of that.
The SITI Company's production of bobrauschenbergamerica
cheekily revises "Monogram": a stuffed deer on a moving platform
has a frilly pink and sequined child's tutu around its neck. This
revision of one of Rauschenberg's most famous images stands as
a telling condensation of the "Rauschenberg" one encounters in
this misguided production. The disorienting power of Rauschenberg's
early work — very much alive, for instance, during the massive
Guggenheim retrospective of 1997-98 — disappears in the SITI Company's
celebration of clichéd, apparently ebullient, tiresome Americana.
For the off-kilter and sometimes brutal power of Rauschenberg's
early combines — for instance, such central works as "Bed" and
"Monogram" itself — bobrauschenbergamerica trades an
utterly unsurprising series of vignettes. This is not collage
on stage, but a variety show, Anne Bogart and Charles Mee's Laugh
In -- in short, the perky postmodernism that the world has
been waiting for.
And perky is the word. The production's
Will to Cheerfulness is positively exhausting. The actors eat
fried chicken cheerfully; they caper cheerfully to Earth, Wind
and Fire's "September"; they square dance cheerfully; they cheerfully
appropriate Pilobolus and throw themselves headlong across wet
plastic. (Pilobolus does it with water; here we're to believe
the actors belly-flop across the fixings for a martini, complete
with olives.) Even one of the few somber sequences — a story of
a young man's murder of his sister, her husband, and their child
— comes framed in cheerful gags about a Domino's pizza delivery.
The great wonder of the evening is how the actors, all skilled,
all appealing, many at work on this piece since its opening in
2001, can keep smiling.
They keep smiling, I would guess, because
they don't know what else to do. The production exists in some
limbo between Method and downtown performance. I suspect the actors
have heard of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, but the acting style
throughout has learned more from the Actor's Studio than from
the theatrical experiments and Happenings pursued by Cage, Cunningham,
and Rauschenberg himself. (The simultaneous booking of Cunningham
in BAM's Opera House and bobrauschenbergamerica in the
Harvey looks like a programmer's lark.) The opening tableau, with
a huge white drop-cloth and a folding ladder, evokes the beginning
of a classy production of Our Town, and in its dedication
to a received version of small-town Americana it owes more to
Wilder's play than to Rauschenberg or to any other source in the
visual arts. And Our Town is a much fiercer work.
One could argue -- and I would guess that
Mee, Bogart, and the Company might argue -- that Our Town,
Rauschenberg, Cunningham, Cage, the Method, Domino's, and Earth,
Wind, and Fire are part of the cultural past that the piece scavenges,
a set of performance styles, pop cultural flotsam and jetsam that
have contributed to the theatrical combine that is bobrauschenbergamerica.
To this list of important materials I would add a slide show of
"Bob's" life and the fragments of writings by Rauschenberg, Cage,
Walt Whitman, and others that the play appropriates. About two-thirds
through the piece, indeed, one of the actors (Barney O'Hanlon)
delivers something like a theoretical account of what has brought
the play's pieces together, emphasizing freedom, pretending that
we have been seeing an evening structured by chance:
We don't often get to do a show like
where we can just put on whatever we like
figure OK what the hell
lets just do whatever we feel like
and hope you'll enjoy it.
(I quote the text from www.charlesmee.org.)
While O'Hanlon speaks, there are smashes and the sounds of fake
accidents in the background. The subject of the speech is assemblage,
improvisation, chance; its mode is rehearsal, repetition, discipline
with a happy face. Fake accidents, in this production, are what
passes for collage.
play stages a yard sale, and that seems close to the production's
sense of the assemblage aesthetic. Here are record albums, let's
hold them up, and smile broadly (the first record of the Eurythmics,
and the first record of the Go-Go's!); here is a pitchfork, let's
pose for our campy rendition of "American Gothic"; here
is a television, let's steal it. The question that links this
yard sale scene to Rauschenberg is that of what becomes of objects
in art. The actors here treat these objects in the spirit of acting
exercises, and the scene feels like a series of fossilized improvisations:
once, one imagines, these actors had twenty seconds to figure
out how to build a story around an object, and now that frozen
moment is part of a production. The objects in Rauschenberg's
combines are not, in the same way, invitations to narrative. SITI's
relentless narrativization of everything is the most telling sign
of the difficulty of translating something like Rauschenberg's
aesthetic into stage practice.
It may simply be that collage is not a
form that works on stage. In what sense can one speak of these
performances as analogous to the juxtapositions of objects in
Rauschenberg's work? Is there a "Monogram" here? The title, bobrauschenbergamerica,
suggests a kind of logo or trademark, a synthesis of the names
of the artist and the nation. But it is as though this production
had mistaken the familiar or, worse, the clichéd, for the real
thing. The all-too-familiar American characters — Bob's Mom in
her apron, Phil the Trucker's Girl in her flouncy bikini, Phil
the Trucker himself with his paunch and pork-chop sideburns and
Harley Davidson T-shirt — suggest that this is an assemblage of
human objects we are ready to buy because we have seen them before.
And we are ready to buy. The audience around
me was thoroughly entertained. Maybe this will be the future of
America's theatrical "avant-garde": we will have our Cage, and
eat it too.