When Robert Rauschenberg visited Cuba in 1988, he publicly criticized the repressiveness of the regime, but he also invited Fidel Castro back to his seaside home in Florida. Castro, laughing at the invitation, asked if the waters weren’t polluted. “No,” Rauschenberg replied, “there are fish and I will cook for you.”
In bobrauschenbergamerica, playwright Charles L. Mee and director Anne Bogart focus far more on the Rauschenberg who guilelessly invites a dictator to his house for dinner than the Rauschenberg who critically scrutinizes society. The play premiered in March of 2001 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, but its gleeful orgy of Americana arrived at BAM at an odd time for celebrating American buoyancy and vigor.
Mee and Bogart are an apt match for Rauschenberg. All three have a penchant for using “found materials” and layering their works with occasionally obscure references. Bobrauschenbergamerica is Mee and Bogart’s homage-collage, a declaration of love transmitted by a patchwork of sketches striving to capture what Mee and Bogart perceive as Rauschenberg’s ebullience. Quotes and allusions abound—some obvious, some oblique. Roller skates evoke Rauschenberg’s own 1965 performance piece Pelican; Mee re-uses text from his own adaptation of Orestes; actors refer to aspects of their private lives that only people intimately familiar with the SITI Company would appreciate—a Rauschenberg-like gesture in itself. Amid square dancing and electric sliding to Earth, Wind & Fire, the words of Walt Whitman, Merce Cunningham, and an assortment of other idiosyncratic artists surface and submerge in playful vignettes staged on a wooden set with a vivid, almost garish American flag painted on it.
As two of the most provocative theater artists working today, Mee and Bogart deserve attention from high-profile venues such as BAM, and not just as part of a season highlighting homegrown talent. The level of feeling and intellect they typically bring to bear remains all too atypical of American theater. That makes it even more surprising when bobrauschenbergamerica gets carried away by its own effervescence.
Despite all the biographical source material, the production’s joie de vivre seems divorced from la vie precisely because joy’s counterweights—pain, sorrow, horror—are seldom explored with any honesty or risk. With the exceptions of Leon Pauli and Akiko Aizawa, many of Bogart’s actors allow their technique to master them instead of the other way around. Pauli’s bearish frame might not summon Christopher Walken to mind, but he has a Walken-esque spirit that rejoices in its own presence, a pleasure heartfelt enough to contain a vulnerability seldom seen in other company members. Rauschenberg’s work and life share that sense of vulnerability, transcending bobrauschenbergamerica‘s level of pleasant, crowd-pleasing diversion.