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Will Bond in bobrauschenbergamerica
(Photo © Richard Termine)
About two-thirds of the way through bobrauschenbergamerica -- one word title, all lower-case letters, very chic -- the actor Barney O'Hanlon steps to the front of the playing area and explains how this raucous, frequently entertaining theater piece was composed. Focusing on art and freedom, he talks amiably about the random tossing-in of whatever popped into various creative heads and concedes that someone could look at this or that element and declare, "That's a piece of junk." Referring to the loose-form accretion of dramatic ingredients hitting audience members in the eye -- not literally, although a few bouncing ping-pong balls almost do -- he observes that patrons "don't really hold it against the show."

No? Some patrons may do just that, and they may also feel that there's something preemptive about O'Hanlon's speech to the audience. It sounds like an attempt to head off criticism of this Anne Bogart-Charles L. Mee collaboration, ostensibly an approximation of how Robert Rauschenberg has approached his work since 1962, when the artist discovered that he could silkscreen on canvas. Employing that process, he began creating large collages -- to which he has often added three-dimensional objects like stuffed animals and tires -- as his artistic response to life in America.

The Rauschenberg canvases, typically chockablock with superimposed and disparate images, may seem arbitrarily juxtaposed, but the result in the best works is a sense of inevitability. The whole is a trenchant comment on the sum of its parts. Other creators working to make an art stew in Rauschenberg fashion, as Bogart and Mee have deliberately elected to do, may encounter an obvious pitfall: Lacking Rauschenberg's expertise, they might come up with something that isn't so much inevitable as avoidable.

Much of what Bogart and Mee heave into bobrauschenbergamerica is, to use O'Hanlon's word, junk -- or if not junk, certainly of questionable value. Determined to reflect America as their predecessor has, the director and the dramatist (Mee says the pair think of themselves as "Rauschenbergians") have linked a series of high-test scenes that take place in front of and on an American flag, half of which rises from the stage and half of which is painted on the floor. (James Schuette's is the production's set and costume designer.) In other words, the actors treading the boards -- many of them Bogart regulars -- are also treading on the flag. But has anyone involved with the production stopped to think that the American flag, while clearly pertinent to a play called bobrauschenbergamerica, is not a signature symbol for Rauschenberg? It's more regularly associated with the artist's longtime pal and one-time building mate, Jasper Johns.

The flag here, in which there's a screen door and a couple of other hinged openings, is supposedly the backdrop for a picnic presided over by the artist's mother (Kelly Maurer in a tight '40s perm). Mom interrupts to talk about her boy and to point out that "art wasn't a part of our lives." As events skew from the initial gathering, Bogart and Mee happen on a number of amusing interludes, a development that should be pointed out to anyone who considers leaving during the "junk"-rife first half-hour. The fun begins when a character called Susan, while stuffing cake into her maw, launches into a monologue about the disparate ways in which women and men regard their feelings; this is a tour de force bit for Lauren Avers as Susan, who explains that a woman understands what she's feeling whereas a man "won't know what he feels when he feels it."

There's a sequence in which a character identified as Phil's Girl (Akiko Aizawa) unfolds a large sheet of plastic, pours a bottle of gin on it, passes a bottle of vermouth over it, drops a few dozen olives and then -- joined by boyfriend Phil, the Trucker (Leon Pauli) -- slides around on her woman-made martini pond. There's a lively square dance cut short by a gunshot and a fallen victim. (Sound designer Darron L. West provides his own Rauschenberg-like music collage throughout.) Phil the Trucker tells a series of chicken jokes worth many a cluck -- er, chuckle. Chickens, incidentally, crop up more than once in this show: At one point, a man in a chicken suit crosses the stage so that the hoary "chicken crossing the road" wheeze can be invoked.

Leon Pauli, Ellen Lauren, Barney O'Hanlon, and Will Bond
in bobrauschenbergamarica
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Along the way, Bogart and Mee throw in everything but the kitchen sink. (They do roll a tub out in homage to Rauschenberg's love of discarded objects.) The aim is to depict the crazy quilt that is America today and that has been America for decades. Mee also wants to add to the exploration of love that he's been pursuing for the past few years, and that's why there are three couples in this cast of oddball characters: Phil and his girl, the commitment-shy Susan and the earnest Wilson (Danyon Davis), and gay blades Carl (Barney O'Hanlon) and Allen (Will Bond). Late in the proceedings, when a yard sale has been completed and a bagpipe troupe representing the Archbishop Molloy High School has made a diagonal across the stage and through the audience, pizza delivery boy Bob (Gian-Murray Gianino) arrives to stumble through an aria about forgiving himself for murdering his sister, her husband, and a nephew. The idea is to send up certain attitudes that are currently considered "politically correct," but it's a muddled argument -- and one that may well offend Domino's Pizza, whose red, white, and blue uniform Bob sports.

Okay, Bogart and Mee see the United States as a catch-as-catch-can place in which even the decades are overlaid; Mom, who serves no apple pie, is locked in the '40s, while Carl refers to his computer. But catch-as-catch-can is often hit-and-miss, which is what they've got here. When it hits, there's joy in the air; when it misses, the effect is reminiscent of '60s avant-garde theater, something Ronald Tavel might have turned out on a bad day. Will Bond, playing a scientist (at least some of the time), has a few Thornton Wilder-like speeches about the universe and its predictability as a system in contrast to human unpredictability, but there's nothing fresh in them. The piece can even be seen as an entry in the 9/11 playwriting sweepstakes.

Where Bogart succeeds, as she often does with her stable of players, is in eliciting celebratory performances. At the outset, nine of them arrive, practically giddy (under Brian H. Scott's blazing lights) at the prospect of their ensuing shenanigans. In addition to the stalwarts already mentioned, there are Becker (J. Ed Araiza), who lives in a box and philosophizes sporadically, and Roller Girl (Jennifer Taher), who takes her skates -- not roller blades-- off only for a couple of the danced sequences. (O'Hanlon choreographed the group numbers and solos for himself.) What they're asked to do may only be intermittently potent, but they always do it with full enthusiasm. Maybe it's the boundless energy they expend that is really concomitant with Robert Rauschenberg's take on America.

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