"If I see in the superficial subconscious relationships that I'm familiar with, cliches of association, I change the picture. I always have a good reason for taking something out but I never have one for putting something in. And I don't want to, because that means that the picture is being painted predigested. And I think a painting has such a limited life anyway. Very quickly a painting is turned into a facsimile of itself when one becomes so familiar with it that one recognizes it without looking at it. I think that's just a natural phenomenon. It may be I think it is even an important one. I don't think that we have the strength over a period of years to see things always as though we hadn't ever looked at them before to see them new."
Oral history with Robert Rauschenberg, 1965 Dec. 21, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
"Wild were the nights when I was rolling, boy,
No hunger unsatisfied...
Banker, he spares a quarter for my cup,
His troubles deeper than mine.
That way of life? Boy, there ain't gold enough.
I'll trade you money for wine."
-Robbie Fulks, "I'll Trade You Money for Wine"
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's retrospective (assembly? convocation?) of Rauschenberg's Combines in 2006 is easily one of the five most eye-opening, staggering experiences I've had with visual art in my life. Might even be number 2 right after the Nam June Paik show I saw at the (at the time) normally stodgy and stiff Columbus Museum of Art in high school. SITI Company (who originally produced bobrauschenbergamerica) did Room, a tribute to Virginia Woolf, at the Wexner Center while I was in college and it took the top of my head off. So Available Light's production of bobrauschenbergamerica had those towering heights, booby-trapped with razor wire associations, to scale for me. And not only did they clear the hurdles, they soared so far over them that by the end of the show I just sat there slackjawed, waiting for the next burst of fireworks in front of and behind my eyes.
So what I'm saying is go. Go now. Right fucking now. And go often (I'm hoping I can squeeze in a second trip amidst usual autumn schedule craziness). If you've got any love for live theater, whatever stripe of it you love, this will fire up the appropriate pleasure centers. Everything else I'm going to write is just filling in boxes. But I'm going to do it anyway. Because this show - and everyone involved - needs as many search engine aftershocks as it can get.
The structure of the play, befitting the title, is less a montage than a combine. Large not-digested (but not undigested - it doesn't choke on them, it leaves them whole) chunks of Whitman and Burroughs and John Cage and monologues developed through Mee's original workshop and visual jokes/allusions that recall Rauschenberg's frequent motifs - tires, a goat, astroturf, umbrellas, boxes showing America in all its breathtaking grime and fucked-up-ness and showing that beating heart trying to find its rhythm in oblique, contradictory ways that "another damn social realist" couldn't have wrapped his hands around.
Eleni Papaleonardos direction is its usual perfectly calibrated self, even more impressive balancing the play's very specific imagery with the loose and open stage direction. Every vignette feels like it lasts just as long as it needs to and feels like it finds its own rhythm, adding up to the rhythm of the piece, be it a complicated cage match of overlapping dialogue, one of the wondrous monologues, or long wordless sequences carried over by dance. By the end of the 90 minutes I felt like I'd spent many hours with great story tellers, in awe. But in the best way, I never looked at my watch once, or wanted to. This show implies a life outside of its lines (and lives outside of the lines of convention and shame and avarice) more beautifully than anything I've ever seen on a stage.
And the acting? Jesus Christ. Dave Wallingford's rare on-mic turn as an unseen narrator (maybe the artist of the title, maybe a more literal God) opening the proceedings with "What I like to do is... I start with anything, a picture, these colors... I like these colors" going into an aria of creation that in lesser hands might have been too on-the-nose. Acacia Duncan's Susan is a whirlwind of charm and some of the best slap stick I've seen on stage in a long, long time, particularly her pair of pas-de-deux with Ben Sostrom's Becker, the first meeting that's straight out of the best Li'l Abner comic strip and her delirious monologue more serious than most people could manage, hilarious at the same time, and as rhythmically precise as a Thelonious Monk solo... all while messily, feverishly eating cake.
Ben Sostrom's been good when I've seen him before but his turn as Becker, the homeless person who frequently represents the downfall of sailing too far afield, being too far in your own head, is hilarious and terrifying. Newcomer to Available Light, Keith Lamar Nolen, as Carl is a wonder, naivete but not unlearned naivete, and with a monologue from the point of view of a museum curator that knocked the breath right out of my lungs.
Ian Short's marvelous as Phil, in denim and a Harley Davidson vest, not undercutting the immediate tough-guy association there or playing to it self-consciously but slowly showing a range of nuance and color that encompasses the preconceptions you're raised toward and all the rest of a life all the way lived in a way that works as a cipher, works as a chunk of America, and reminds me a lot more of the truckers I grew up around (my Dad managed truckers for a long time) than some cliche in a hat; his monologue about food near the end of the play might be the brightest highlight in a whole show of highlights. And Elena Perantoni's take on Phil's Girl, acted entirely in a red and white polka dot (immediate evoking a Rauschenberg palette) bikini, is a rippling radioactive ball of joy, from her rapid-fire back and forth with Short about shame to an astounding axis/flipped "dance" on a martini slip and slide including catching olives thrown by short in her mouth while sliding backward.
Drew Eberly as Allen and Pam Decker as Bob's Mom are rocks, in mostly less flashy roles - with exceptions, like Eberly's appearance in a towel to lead the stage in a gorgeous read of The Inkspots "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire"; or Decker's dance with Sostrom with emotions cascading into one another on her face near the end of the pay. Both are frequently called upon to do as much plot-heavy-lifting as there is in this show, underlining the theme as in Allen's "The truth is: all any human being can ever observe is the past. You never see the present. And everything you look at is younger than it is right now" and his ferocious, clear-headed monologue about Los Alamos. Similarly summed up in Decker's stories about Bob that always end with "Art was not a part of our lives" especially her heart-breaking story about Bob's Grandmother that sums up the power of transformation and the frustration when transformation is denied, "I would have preferred to smash them against brick walls to see what they might have become." That both of these actors keep from just being a cipher with the most abstract material in the show is a testament to their great talent.
For a show with this many spinning plates, any of the technical elements could have derailed it so badly it never found its way again. But not only did they work, everything worked beautifully. Dave Wallingford's sound design is almost invisible even with all of the sound elements but when it draws attention to itself it's some of the best work he's done. Jarod Wilson's moody lighting made everything shine but kept the undercurrent of shimmering darkness in its mind. Acacia Duncan's choreography - almost always the weakest part of an Available Light show it factors into - was uniformly terrific, whether the cast as a whole was line dancing, people were pairing off into waltzing, or someone in a chicken suit was gyrating on the stage.
If we want to call this the first show of the fall then it's a motherfucking call to arms. The kind of thing that acknowledges the darkness, the grit, the cynicism of modern life and reminds you how goddam beautiful it is anyway. There's stuff coming to town (or I'm going to see on some out of town trips) - Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Young Jean Lee, Pinter, my favorite Sondheim play, the return of Sean Lewis - but the bar's set high for all of those things.
Runs through September 21st. Tickets: http://avltheatre.com/shows/bobrauschenbergamerica/
11 hours ago