American Repertory Company, Loeb Theatre, Cambridge. Created and performed by the SITI Company. Directed by Anne Bogart
We aren’t told in the program what SITI stands for; perhaps it’s just a way to sound out “CITY.” In any case, this company, founded in 1992 by Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki to revitalize contemporary U. S. theatre, still keeps a base in Saratoga Springs, New York, at Skidmore College. The core company of nine actors, four designers, a playwright, a stage manager, and administrators, has been augmented by another actor; all are members of Actors Equity. They come close, in their notable variety of body and personality types, to correspond to a traditional repertory company that, given enough rehearsal, could perform almost any play. They are confident, experienced performers who can dance and sing as well as act.
In this piece the playwright Charles Mee has put together a kind of pastiche (the term is used by Robert Orchard, the ART Executive Director, in a welcoming note in the program) based on the art of Robert Rauschenberg, who came to prominence on the American art scene in the mid-twentieth century (and who, to judge from my efforts at Googling him, is still alive and living in Florida). In some ways it is a tribute to the artist and a fragmentary retrospective of a kind, but it is not mere nostalgia that drives this production. On the contrary, as the Internet-address-like title of the work seems to suggest, what we are to see cannot — could not — be aptly described by a more conventional title such as Bob Rauschenberg’s America, which would perhaps suggest a fond looking back , fifty years or so, to a time when New York was taken, or overtaken, by pop art from such rebellious artists as Andy Warhol. As I think about it, Rauschenberg has proved to have more staying power than the painter of the Campbell soup can. That all-in-lowercase-no-punctuation title would have been possible only in the last few years; and so it puts us on notice that what we are to see about Rauschenberg, whatever it is, is going to be viewed through a contemporary lens, perhaps noticeably out of time and space.
The setting is a huge replica of an American flag, folded so that the left half of it is a straight-up-and-down backing, while the right half continues to run down stage almost to the edge. A bicycle is brought on and ridden across the stage at one point, reminiscent of a white ghost-like bicycle in one of Rauschenberg’s paintings. There is a human-sized chicken (did he paint a chicken? Probably). One of the female actors is on roller skates for much of the performance — which lasts for an uninterrupted hour and forty-five minutes. Another actor, big and burly, wears a motorcycle T-shirt (“Harley Davidson,” it says); still another wears a very shabby raincoat and has long, hippie-length hair and a beard; another, who happens to be black, wears a short-brimmed hat and trim suit jacket popular in the fifties. The fictional setting varies, but the most frequently recurring is a Midwestern small town, where you could “walk to the end of your block and right away you were in the country, surrounded by rows of corn.” One of the female characters is “Bob’s Mom” (Kelly Maurer), in a print dress and an apron, who brings on stage fried chicken and potato salad, entering through the screen door cut into the flag and setting the dishes down on a picnic table brought on at downstage right and visited by the rest of the company. At one point they all load up plastic plates with food and then sit about the stage wordlessly for several minutes while they eat (actors in this production don’t need to eat lunch or supper before a performance). It is real down-home stuff.
And yet it isn’t, really. Something happens, often, to throw a damper on things, or one scene ends or breaks off and another, seemingly unconnected, succeeds it. One such scene involves the guy in a spiffy suit who carries a baseball bat through some of the scenes; in this scene he comes on alone carrying a new, untouched, shiny metal garbage can. He sets it down in the middle of the stage, on its side, then pauses to take a small package out of his pocket; it proves to be earplugs, which he molds to shape and then puts into his ears. He then picks up the baseball bat and begins beating the can with all the force he can muster, succeeding in beating it almost flat. He then pauses to remove the earplugs, replaces them in the package and the package in his pocket, and then drags the flattened can offstage, betraying not a hint of emotion the entire time. It is a frightening display of naked aggression. (And an inordinate use of perfectly good garbage cans. I somehow think of things like this.)
Another equally frightening scene involves a pizza delivery man, who comes on stage bearing a pizza in a quilted case while the company are seated at their ease. He proceeds to explain that he has a history; he did something bad that he had to struggle to forgive himself for, but his struggle was finally successful and he is now at peace with himself. “What did you do?” one of the company asks. “I’m a triple murderer,” the deliveryman explains. He murdered three relatives, including (as I remember) a young girl, by cutting their throats. But he is at peace now with himself, and happy once again. “Who ordered the pizza?” he asks. No one there has ordered a pizza. The deliveryman becomes at once irate and threatening. “Pizzas are delivered to be paid for and eaten,” he insists. The guy in the snap-brim hat says he will pay for it, and does. The deliveryman goes off, pausing to say a very friendly good-bye to them all. We are left stunned by this. Then Bob’s mom comes out of the “house” (the screen door that evidently lets onto the backyard); “Oh, my pizza,” she says, and takes it, smiling, into the house.
There are other scenes, a number of them, arranged seemingly in no particular order, but producing a cumulative effect of exemplifying what Rauschenberg’s America is, or was, like. His mom explains at several points, “Art — ART — was not a part of our lives.” And late in the play she adds that they all belonged to the Church of Christ: no dancing, no music, no card playing, even for fun. In fact, “anything that could even remotely be considered as pleasurable was strictly forbidden.”
We sense that the Midwestern background against which Bob evidently revolted was — well, the Midwestern background here described. But the overall tone of the play, including the moments of sudden violence (in another scene, which ends happily and is then countered by a shot that rings out, killing a man who seems to be gay, we find the same sort of thing), is not so much a high-handed dismissal of such corn-fed wholesomeness as a neutral, straightforward enactment of all the things that have contributed to the “pastiche” of American experience itself. There are efforts at love, and finding oneself; at play; at the Pursuit of Happiness; and in the course of the performance, much good dancing, including a first-rate square dance. There are spontaneous outbreaks of just marvelous things — for example, we hear a bagpipe being played off stage, and then the Piper comes on, dressed in a green plaid kilt and the rest of the usual ceremonial attire, and, as everyone stops to watch in fixed admiration, the Piper, playing a traditional Scottish tune over the very noticeable monotone drone, marches from up left to down right, and then out into the auditorium, mounting the stairs at one side and finally disappearing out of sight and earshot at the top of the seating area.
I began by wondering if I was in the mood to tolerate what appeared to be perhaps no more than a silly vaudeville act, but I was soon won over, partly because of the sheer competence and disciplined vitality of the performers. There turned out to be much to sink one’s teeth into here, despite the ostensible triviality of the proceedings.