If you’re not sure what’s going on in Charles Mee‘s Bobrauschenbergamerica, you’re probably not alone. The play, whose title references Neo-Dadaist American painter and sculptor Robert Rauschenberg, is directed by Thom Finley ’14 and opens tonight in the PW Downspace. It is whimsical, wacky, and at times, bordering on nonsensical. Which is precisely the point.
The show’s eccentric nature is clear before actors even take the stage. The set, designed by Sam Keamy-Minor ’16, resembles an explosion of an all-American house. Symbols of domestic, small-town American life are strung from the ceiling, creating a web of dust pans, dollhouses, badminton racquets, toy cars, and rolling pins. Slides projected onto hanging white boards give the space a museum-like feel.
Bobrauschenbergamerica is held up by a committed and ceaselessly energetic ensemble cast. Much of the time the members of the show appear onstage all at once, feeling less like a group of individuals and more like a well-oiled machine. The nontraditional narrative structure, which consists of a series of loosely connected vignettes, synchronized dance numbers, audio clips, monologues and wordless sequences, is deliberately vague, demanding audience members’ active intellectual engagement. The dance numbers are just riotously funny, although there is something frightening in the moments of synchronization, something abnormally homogenous.
There is something distinctly American about the play, but it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what that “something” is. It doesn’t hurt that Bobrauschenbergamerica is an aesthetically patriotic feat; the lights, costumes and set, featuring splashes of red, red and white checkered tablecloths, aprons, roller skates and plenty of flannel, depict American tropes so accurately that it begins to call into question the culture we have been blindly consuming our whole lives. By the end of the show, you begin to ask yourself the panicked question: is this what America looks like to outsiders?
The cast seems like puppets, cardboard cutouts of what Americans are “supposed” to look like, acting how Americans are “supposed” to act, telling American stories. There’s a housewife, a trucker, a high school couple. Nice, white, heterosexual, God-fearing Americans.
Bobrauschenbergamerica is a serious play dealing with serious themes, and yet, these themes are wrapped in layers and layers of satire. Beyond the veneer, one can sense something sinister and always nagging, a raging storm of anger and dissent. The show is eerie from the start, despite a perfectly polished exterior – perhaps this effect is produced because the exterior is too perfectly polished. The show depicts an American with floating duck syndrome: calm above the surface, desperately paddling below.
Themes of capitalism, love, purity, sex, violence and innovation–six words that pretty effectively encapsulate American history–are present throughout. Mee, in his script, doesn’t attempt to make grandiose statements about the grandiose themes he presents. Despite the show being a critique–or merely an exploration–of what it means to be American, America is an elusive entity. It evades categorization, definition and solution.
Yet, the show is, above all else, extremely evocative. By the end, the space is engulfed in a repetitious frenzy. Although you’re not quite sure what you’ve just watched, you feel claustrophobic, unsettled, and wary of the world you’re stepping back into. If Bobrauschenbergamerica makes you sure of anything, it’s that the world Finley and his creative team have created in the Downspace is not half as weird as the one we’re living in now.
Tickets are available here or at the PW box office one hour before each show. Bobrauschenbergamerica runs through Monday night.