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Under Construction

Charles Mee's new work, inspired by artists Norman Rockwell and Jason Rhoades, is likely to elicit a mixture of fascination and boredom. logo
Ellen Lauren in Under Construction
(© Michael Brosilow)
SITI Company's production of Charles Mee's Under Construction, directed by Anne Bogart at Dance Theatre Workshop, is likely to elicit a mixture of fascination and boredom. Inspired by the work of artists Norman Rockwell and Jason Rhoades, the piece is a collage of images and short scenes that are strung together without a coherent narrative framework.

Some scenes are recognizably derived from particular Rockwell paintings, such as the one that begins with a large family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner, or those set in a barbershop -- including a nicely sung barbershop quartet sequence. Baseball paraphernalia and a scene in which a soldier comes home can also be traced to the kind of imagery that appears in Rockwell works.

Additionally, since Rockwell is often associated with images of a somewhat idealized small town American lifestyle, Mee interpolates texts from instructional films of the 1950s on subjects such as how a child new in school can learn to make friends, or the proper etiquette for going on a date. Much of this is served up in a slyly parodic style that makes fun of the outmoded attitudes of yesteryear.

The scenes corresponding more to Rhoades' art are intentionally darker and chaotic. An installation artist whose works encompassed both the sexual and the banal, Rhoades was known for large-scale works that seemed arbitrary at first glance, but when examined in closer detail revealed a kind of logic. This is obviously the philosophy that undergirds the seemingly random ordering of events in Mee's play, even if the logic is sometimes hard to determine.

But while such a strategy may be strong conceptually, in actual performance it proves frustrating and tedious. Part of the problem is that unlike some of Mee's previous collage-like plays, this one does not contain recognizable characters or character types whom the audience can follow on any kind of journey.

Actor Tom Nelis does occasionally seem to have a recurring role as a narrator figure, with a pipe stuck in his mouth, but it's not consistent and makes it hard for the audience to latch onto anything concrete. There are also so many seeming end points presented that when a brand new action starts up, it seems like the show is just dragging on and on.

That's not to say that there aren't highly effective moments. Ellen Lauren is riveting in a sequence that is part interactive audience poll about their sexual practices and part unapologetic proclamation by a prostitute on the difficulties of her job and the improved technology of strap-on dildos. Additionally, a mostly non-verbal sequence in which various performers -- who also include Akiko Aizawa, J. Ed Araiza, Leon Ingulsrud, Barney O'Hanlon, Makela Spielman, Samuel Stricklen, and Stephen Duff Webber -- are tied up with extension cords, duct tape, and other materials to form a living sculpture is striking.

At the end of the show, the audience is invited into the performance space to make their own mark, moving around props or trying on costumes as some of the actors sing Simon and Garfunkel songs. Yet, while there's a celebratory inclusiveness that makes this part of the performance hard to resist, coherent meaning remains elusive.

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