Declaration of Independence

Theatre de la Jeune Lune's The Pursuit of Happiness is a trip to the dark side of the moon.

These sections are meant to convey what's going on in the imaginations of the play's self-smitten filmmakers, but nobody knows whether they're going to work out technically, or even stay in the show. Right now, Cinemamerica seems fragmented, and everyone keeps talking about how "flat" it feels. "When the audience is confused, or is not following what's going on, it's probably because we're not inviting them in," says Spence one night after rehearsal. "That's what was alarming to me today about Act One; it didn't seem like the audience was included for a good portion of it."

Our girl Ginny is still in the show, though the fuck me line has been jettisoned. "[One day] I said, that's just gratuitous, I don't get the point or understand why we have to say that," recalls Berlovitz Desbois. "It's going to come out of a big man dressed as a woman--what is this all about?"

Perhaps the most frightening part of opening Cinemamerica is the knowledge that even after opening night, the project remains only half-done. Part two, Lifeliberty, opens a month later, and is itself another sprawling and ridiculously challenging work. From the unreality of Hollywood, this show will retreat to find a subculture underground, as inspired by the "mole people" who live in New York's subway tunnels. These people are the natural end product of Cinemamerica, the ones left behind by the Disneyfied planned community that America is becoming.

Daniel Corrigan

The metaphor here extends to Jeune Lune and their own occasional sense of obsolescence. It is winter in the theater world, and the art form is embattled like never before: by television and movies; by deteriorating criticism; by the crippling of the National Endowment for the Arts; by the political agendas of corporate funders; by high-priced Broadway tours that suck up theatergoers. All these forces whittle away at audiences for local theater, and all contribute to the nation's creeping theatrical illiteracy. These days, even major regional theaters like the Guthrie are fighting to hold on to their audiences and maintain funding. It's difficult enough if you're doing classics and revivals--as both the Guthrie and the Jungle do.

It's more difficult if you're intrepidly, ceaselessly reaching for ever-higher artistic plateaus, and employing a painstaking collective process. Put plainly, Jeune Lune's shows aren't the sorts of works they can mount in six weeks--nor would they want to. They live for the process, the sort of gestation that produced Cinemamerica: They dream, debate, free-associate ideas, and improvise. They write fast and dirty to see what comes out, then tinker and argue some more.

This indulgent method is the envy and admiration of theaters across the country, but almost no one else does it because it's too expensive. And when you've got a full-time staff of 16, bills to pay, an enormous theater to fill, and funders to please, it's almost impossible to sustain year-round (especially since almost half their annual budget comes from ticket sales). The catch-22 is that the company feels its best shows--and biggest financial successes--are the ones born from this process.

The result is that "we produce more than we want to be producing," says Berlovitz Desbois, and they're painfully aware of the artistic price paid. (Witness the critical and box-office disappointment of last season's revival of The Kitchen.) That's why this moment is so important, says Richardson. "This is where we have arrived, and now we're ready to say that with confidence. In some ways it's a manifesto of the company's opinions about theater. The work we produce over long periods of time--where we're really putting our money where our rhetoric is--those are the big successes critically and popularly. Now we're saying, if that's the case, let's do that for every show and make sure that every show has that fire and that core."

Curtain

And so it comes to pass that on October 11, Cinemamerica finally opens to a full house at Theatre de la Jeune Lune. "We are almost never ready to open a show," Serrand likes to remind an audience, a hint of pride in his voice. "It's just what we have so far. And we continue to change it until we close." That's what makes this theater piece so different from film, the medium this production comments on. The work is never static, never finished; and once it is performed, the work is forever lost, each night.

And the lovers will be here every night, crawling from the wreckage of their desire. Consummating their love anew: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday--and next week, and the week after. Can the affair with America last? Will it be reciprocated?

It's a long play, often funny, with a couple of masterful, transcendent moments. In one rather maddening scene, the film director, producer, and star argue combatively about where the movie's plot is going. The scene is long, and becomes increasingly outlandish the longer they debate. By intermission, the film has dissolved into a contentious muddle of acrimony and nonsense; the collective process has crashed for these men.

And from the silence in the theater and the long pause before the applause, one wonders if Jeune Lune realizes that they're telling their own autobiography, and it might not be going over. The play, like the film inside it, like America itself, teeters on the edge of an impossible disjointedness. How, one wonders, do you convey chaos without becoming chaos? How do you tell a story without becoming the story?

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