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SITI Company's bobrauschenbergamerica
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 this
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 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.

bobrauschenbergamericaThe 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.



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