You are in the lobby of Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland, in America, waiting to get into Forum’s bobrauschenbergamerica. The problem is that you don’t know whether you’ve actually wandered into the play or not. The walls are festooned with American flag bunting. An attractive young woman in a floral dress enters, carrying a gaggle of balloons. Is she part of the play? Or here is a young girl wearing a helmet and in-line skates (Kallei Isaac). Surely she is! But what about that very tall man with the backpack in the corner? Or the young woman with the surprisingly bright red lipstick? Here’s somebody dressed up as Post critic Peter Marks! Oh, wait, that is Peter Marks. bobrauschenbergamerica is not about art in America – it’s about the art of America. Another way to say this is that it is about you.
Bob Rauschenberg was an artist whose work looked like this:
He made what he saw. Unlike, say, Rembrandt, he did not try to control what you thought about his art. He put it together – painstakingly, and with great attention to detail – and let you think what you wanted about it. He was an American. He believed in freedom.
Thus Bob’s mom (Annie Houston) gives us a tour of his art. We are seeing slides of his various installations, but to mom they are scenes from Bob’s childhood. Oh, look, mom says as we look at a slide of an ambiguous wooden box, that’s a project that Bob did for Boy Scouts, with popsicle sticks. This is Bob standing in front of the chicken coop we had in the back, she says as we gaze at a scene of many objects including, yes, a chicken. So it is with us: he creates what he sees, and we see what we need.
Rauschenberg’s principal subject was America, and it takes many big installations to take in so vast a subject. The principal subject of Charles Mee’s bobrauschenbergamerica is also America, and as put together by Forum Theatre, painstakingly, and with great attention to detail, it is also a series of big installations, designed to let us feel her beating heart.
America is not a novel. It is a series of short stories, and so is bobrauschenbergamerica.
It is the story of the giddy, lovedrunk passion between truck-driving Phil (Cliff Williams III) and his girl (Chelsey Christensen), and how he, honest and straightforward, guides her through her inexplicable self-doubt. It is the story of the more sober love between Carl (Aaron Reeder) and Allen (Augie Praley), who hope to open their own small business together. It is the story of the boldness and self-confidence of Becker (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), a man who lives in cardboard boxes and who is, ah, inattentive to matters of personal hygiene, who nonetheless pitches an idea for a guns-blazing conspiracy film, and who nods sympathetically when Susan (Julie Garner) complains about “dirtballs”. It is the story of Susan’s gusty passion for Becker and also for the prim Wilson (Michael Dove), with whom she once lived, and the way she embraces feelings at the expense of coherence. It is a story of the land’s ineffable beauty, observed at night by Phil and also by a scientist (Praley) who is working on the atomic bomb. It is a story of baseball and checkers and watermelon and pizza and destructive rage. It is a story of death, and the assassination of political leaders. It is a story of incandescent joy.
Such a thing, if it is to be done at all, must be done with the verve and pizzazz of a magic act, and director Derek Goldman does just that with this production. Every actor establishes his character with a few brief brushstrokes, and is thereafter every instant that character until he becomes someone else. They move with rapturous grace from one moment to the next (Kelly Mayfield is the choreographer), and some moments – I’m thinking of the goofy scene in which Phil and his sweetie turn a water-slide into a martini-slide – approach ballet. We do not get to what America is until the final moment, but when we do, Bob Rauschenberg and Charles Mee and Forum let us know. It is a work of art.
It’s almost a sacrilege, when describing such an organically superb production, to single out a performance, but fidelity to truth requires that I make special note of a superb cameo appearance by Joe Brack as Bob, the Pizza Guy. Brack has graced the Washington stage with many fine performances over the years, but has recently elevated his game significantly, and in this compelling performance he shows how the most unremarkable individuals can have stories that will scare you to death.
bobrauschenbergamerica is a story about what it’s like to live in a free country, where you can see what you see, even if it’s wrong, and say what you want, even if it’s stupid.
Dictators and art curators might have it otherwise, but Bob Rauschenberg’s America insists on being itself. So I recommend you come see yourself, distilled in this magical way, you hard-loving, hard-drinking, sorrowful, joyful, passionate, playful, rageful, checker-playing, watermelon-eating, hard-dreaming, wealth-loving, down-and-out, baseball-bashing, ashcan-smashing, art-loving American, you.
By Charles Mee
Directed by Derek Goldman
Produced by Forum Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: two hours with no intermission