Artists in America? Huh?

America, America, Bob shed his grace on thee.
PHOTO BY DEBI LANDRIE

"Art was not a part of our lives," says Robert Rauschenberg's aproned Texan mother (Mari Marks) in Charles L. Mee's Bobrauschenbergamerica. It's a line repeated, like an anthem, in Mee's 2001 play, which opened in a SpyAnts Theatre Company production last weekend at [Inside] the Ford. Mee is attempting to create a performance piece in the way that his subject — the late artist — might have imagined the story of his work.

The play's beauty lies in how its form replicates the very shifts of perception Rauschenberg was aiming for in his sculpted collages of found junk. In the '50s, abstract expressionism was yielding to pop art, and there are elements of both in Mee's play, fully supported by Bart DeLorenzo's sometimes goofy, sometimes wry and occasionally earnest staging.

A series of short scenes more or less crash into each other, which is exactly the feeling you get from viewing a Rauschenberg collage. Some of the scenes contain words, some don't. Some ensnare the essences of gender divides, one dramatizes the murderous mentality of a pizza delivery boy (John Charles Meyer). In one scene, a guy bashes a trash can with a baseball bat. From the top of a stepladder, scientist Allen (Eric Bunton) ruminates on the beauty of the landscape and his grim work at Los Alamos. In another scene, he ponders the relationship between time and space, how we misunderstand what we see because our senses can't capture the multiplicity of physical dimensions beyond our grasp. And that's really what Rauschenberg's collages are trying to get at.

On Marina Mouhibian's set of sculpted vintage kitsch — some of it attached to the proscenium wall — a girl (played by the aptly named Breeze Braunschweig) on skates and wearing short shorts breezes by. A young woman named Susan (Jennifer Etienne Eckert) falls in lust with a hobo named Becker (Brett Hren) — befuddling her blue-suited boyfriend from Chicago (Adam Dornbusch). She just as quickly falls out of lust with Becker, describing her passion as a "summer storm." The smallest of insights between these two are what I found most affecting: "And then it was over," Susan explains.

Retorts Becker, "Maybe it wasn't over for me."

"I'm sorry."

"I don't think you can just drop someone like that and just say 'I'm sorry.' "

"I didn't just say 'I'm sorry.' I am sorry. "

"This is why some people call women fickle."

"I don't think it has anything to do with being fickle. ... Women feel what they feel when they feel it, and then when they don't feel it anymore, they don't feel it. Unlike a man, who won't know what he feels when he feels it, and then later on he'll realize how he felt and so he'll talk himself into feeling it again when he doesn't feel it because he thinks he should be consistent about the positions he takes and stick to them . . . so a man always thinks he feels things he doesn't feel, and so he never really knows how he feels at all."

Hren's Becker has the best and worst moments in this production. His enactment of a movie he envisages is interminable, yet near play's end, he recites a Whitmanesque ode, a celebration of America's agonies and beauties, gently accompanied by Dvorák's Symphony From the New World, which sends the event spiraling into one of those dimensions that scientist Allen insists we're incapable of grasping. In this way, director DeLorenzo underscores Mee's kaleidoscope of words, characters and actions, a kaleidoscope that defies the logic of a traditional drama by exposing multiple dimensions in tones both etherial and pop, not unlike a Rauschenberg sculpture.

A portrait of the artist and his dream state lies at the heart of Tennessee Williams' 1957 Orpheus Descending, currently at Theatre/Theater in a presentation by Frantic Redhead Productions. As in Bobrauschenbergamerica, the dream state aims to reveal our waking state. To amplify this point, director Lou Pepe works on David Mauer's set, which strips Williams' Southern mercantile shop setting of all knickknacks and even some walls — floor patterns differentiate spaces. What we're used to seeing in the world, and in the theater, items for sale in a shop for instance, yield to open, abstract space. This smart concept is somewhat undermined by Brandon Baruch's murky lighting, so that it's hard to tell if we're in a dream or in a theater with a compromised budget — though there's an argument that they're really the same thing.

Drifter Val Xavier (Gale Harold) carries his guitar (autographed by the likes of famous black musicians such as Lead Belly) into the shop, where he picks up work as night watchman, hired by soon-to-be widowed Lady Torrance (a repressed yet dignified portrayal by Denise Crosby). Lady's vindictive brute of a husband (Geoffrey Wade) lies dying upstairs, and Lady imagines his passing as a kind of resurrection of her former dreams, which he literally burned to the ground. The play comes packed with biblical allusions, as well as the Orpheus myth that frames it. Inevitably, Val will be scapegoated and sacrificed to a miscarriage of justice — his truth-telling artistry mocked by the mob. (In an earlier 1940 version, the musician was a writer.)

The women clinging to straws of sanity find themselves drawn to Val — either erotically (Claudia Mason's twiglike Carol Cutrere, banned from the county for lewd exhibitionism) or spiritually (Francesca Casale's symbolist painter of religious themes).

The Pico Boulevard theater is a bit of an echo chamber, yet the ensemble's power and conviction are so potent, Williams' collage of allegories pulls us in, until the cheesy ending snaps the spell. This doesn't mute the production's larger purpose: The sacrifice of the artist certainly isn't a problem that ended in 1957.

BOBRAUSCHENBERGAMERICA | By CHARLES L. MEE | [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hlywd. | Through Feb. 28 | (323) 461-3673

ORPHEUS DESCENDING | By TENNESSEE WILLIAMS | THEATRE/THEATER, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A. | Through Feb. 21 | (800) 838-3006


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