bobrauschenbergamerica – Theater Review

From the News-Press:
Play asks if collage can save the republic
By Ted Mills
If we are, as a recent issue of Wired proclaimed, the era of the remix, with a treasure chest of late 20th-century culture to plunder, then we should look back at pre-postmodernist, post-abstract expressionist, pre-pop collagist Robert Rauschenberg as one of the earliest remixers. His found-object works prompted walkouts and consternation, though his use of Americana was more affectionate than sarcastic.
Charles L. Mee’s post-9/11 attempt to reclaim a forward-thinking view of America looks to Mr. Rauschenberg’s collage for suggestions and asks if there’s anything that we can reclaim to heal this republic, diseased and ailing from war and debt. Or is mom and apple pie a museum piece?

“Bobrauschenbergamerica,” playing through Saturday at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theatre, doesn’t pretend to answer these questions, but it offers a kaleidoscope of characters, routines and images.
There is no real storyline here, and neither are there “real” characters. Instead, there are character types and skits. We have the truck driver Phil (Ryan Mueller) and his swimsuit-wearing girl (Heather Moiseve). There’s a homeless man, Becker, played by Will McFadden. There’s a couple in an off-again, on-again relationship, Wilson and Susan, played here by Alex Knox and Nickey Winkelman. Colin Deeb plays Allen, a bookish scientist of some sort, and Justin Gillman plays Carl, his partner in business and pleasure.
Overseeing this family-by-default is Bob’s mom, played by Tasha Himebauch. She doesn’t interact with the cast so much as feed them, bringing out fried chicken and pies, helping set up a picnic table and picking up the daily paper thrown by a passing paperboy. She also screens family photos for the audience in a large slide show. “There’s Bob playing on the roof,” she says, describing a photo of Neil Armstrong on the moon. “There’s the kids building a fort,” she says about a shot of a family in a bomb shelter. These are, indeed, our family photos; memories of a time when we thought we could do anything, but also when awesome destruction seemed so nearby, yet incomprehensible.
Skits break out, suddenly, and end in the same way. Susan is torn between Becker and Wilson, the latter who can’t seem to remember if she’s his wife, girlfriend, fiancee or ex. Susan and Becker spar over how women feel and how men have to think about feeling. Susan later confronts Wilson while she devours a fruit pie, Cookie Monster-style. Phil and his girl lay down some white tarp, pour the contents of a large martini (olives included) over it and go for a swim.
A person in a large chicken suit crosses the stage. A silent rollergirl in full disco garb skates past. Allen and Carl try to come up with a business plan for a fried chicken restaurant. Allen talks about the size of the universe, working at Los Alamos, and how when you look in the mirror, due to the speed of light, your younger self looks back.
There’s a bravura sequence for almost-full ensemble, when Becker describes a movie he’d like to make, and quickly sets about casting everybody else in a free association conspiracy tale that would make the Firesign Theatre proud.
The cast take musical breaks as well, either to dance to Earth, Wind & Fire, or to square dance or to bust out with an old standard, like “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” with lead handled by Alex Knox.
And then there’s the chilling appearance by Ryan Lockwood as a pizza delivery man who discusses the triple murder he’s committed and whether self-forgiveness is enough.
For everything good about America, Mr. Mee seems to be saying, there’s a dark underside (though geographically ambiguous, the play’s only location mentioned is Los Alamos, birthplace of the atomic bomb). But is this dark side just another element to add to the collage? And by doing so, does it take away the sting?
Missing from Mr. Mee’s play, however, is any sense of community. Yes, there are couplings, but they are of the most abstract kind. It’s to the actors’ credit that there is any emotional core here at all, as the structure and the attitude towards the characters means we glimpse only thin strips of personality. Ms. Winkelman tethers her Susan to an idea of the jaded housewife. Mr. Knox’s Wilson is left to grasp for straws in a failed relationship. Mr. McFadden falls back on the inventiveness and comic timing that has served him well in his other performances.
Directed with an able hand by Tom Whitaker and featuring what must be the fourth set design by Tal Sanders in as many weeks (in collaboration with Jonathan Dove), “bobrauschenbergamerica” offers a vision of our nation we might have lost, or that might just be out there still, waiting for us to put the pieces back together.

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