Road trip! (with a collage-crazy modern artist at the wheel)
By Hannah Kenah, Fri., Sept. 18, 2009
"This is the most difficult piece I've ever directed. It's 70 minutes long and has about 43 scenes." That's Mary Moody Northen Theatre Artistic Director David Long, who is currently helming a production of the theatrical beast bobrauschenbergamerica at St. Edward's University. But Long reassures that, given his background in physical theatre and his affection for nonrealism, "It's right up my alley."
Charles Mee wrote bobrauschenbergamerica for Anne Bogart's SITI Company. Michelle Polgar, managing director of MMNT, saw the original production at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2001. She recalls the memorable experience, with the author sitting in front of her. "I laughed until I wept. It was swift and daring and so much fun." Polgar thought the piece would be a good fit for Long. "David is drawn to big, bold, theatrical statements, and bobrauschenbergamerica is as big, bold, and theatrical as you can possibly get."
So what is this bold piece of theatre all about? It is a tribute to Robert Rauschenberg, a great American artist who died only last year. But rather than providing a biographical portrait, the work celebrates Rauschenberg's process – a collision of ideas and images brought together into one fantastic whole. SITI Company's website describes the show as "a wild road trip through the American landscape – written as Robert Rauschenberg might have conceived it had he been a playwright instead of a painter." Long describes the show as someone might describe a piece of Rauschenberg's art. "It's a mosaic of elements. Everything starts to pull together. We examine one thing at a distance, but when we get closer, we see something else."
Much of the brilliance of Rauschenberg's work was in its sense of humor and its ability to honor the world as the world is. One of his masterpieces, Monogram (1959), was made out of a police barricade, parts of a shoe, tennis balls, a tire, and a taxidermied goat. The artist once said: "I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly. Because they're surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable." Mee captured this jovial perspective in his play. Using the word "hysterical," Long describes a world populated by iconic characters – a truck driver, a bathing beauty, a derelict – who "are in direct contrast with what our perception of them is on face value."
Though the play follows no linear story, it is accessible. "When people come see this, everybody is going to get something out of it," Long explains. "On a surface level, there are lots of comic bits; there's lots of spectacle. On a more cerebral level, there are some really interesting issues." The play bounces from the absurd to the poignant, sometimes achieving both simultaneously. But to make a long story short, or rather to take 70 minutes of nonstop theatrical action and explain it in a few words, Long summarizes, "This play is about art, America, and chickens."
bobrauschenbergamerica runs Sept. 17-27, Thursday-Saturday, 7:30pm, and Sunday, 2pm, at Mary Moody Northen Theatre, St. Edward's University, 3001 S. Congress. For more information, call 448-8484 or visit www.stedwards.edu/hum/thtr/mmnt.html.