The Franco-American War

It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: The Dealer (Robert Rosen, left) and Alligator Boy (Steven Epp) cavort with a puppet friend in a subterranean netherworld.

The Pursuit of Happiness: Cinemamerica and Lifeliberty
Theatre de la Jeune Lune

BEFORE BEGINNING, I must concede defeat. After seeing both parts of Theatre de la Jeune Lune's two-part, five-hour investigation of "the idea of America," I have no clue what country--or planet, for that matter--Jeune Lune ended up investigating, nor any notion of what it had to say about the visit. In Jeune Lune's hands, this strange experiment of a country has become an even stranger experiment of a play. And, like most Americans, it is filled with more ambition than sense.

Part I, Cinemamerica, begins with a Hollywood screenwriter desperately in search of an idea. Contracts have been signed, actors hired, and a shooting schedule set, but the script has yet to be written. What follows, near as I can tell, is an associative free-for-all around the idea of not having any good ideas. This shoot-from-the-hip creative process is ostensibly a metaphor for the messy mix of democracy and capitalism that is America. The founding fathers may have given us a few guidelines and an ideological shove, but they had no idea where it all would lead. In Cinemamerica, this combination of faith and risk is represented by Thomas Jefferson crunched into the back seat of a speeding car, tapping out the Declaration of Independence on a laptop computer, while a pair of hormonally charged lovers satisfy their lust in the front seat, oblivious to their impending doom.

All this sounds more interesting than it is. In fact, one could probably write an entire (unreadable) Ph.D. thesis on all the possible meanings lurking behind Cinemamerica's apparent aimlessness and incoherence. At its core, however, is a condescending and ultimately self-annihilating perspective. Indeed, by imitating its subject matter too closely, Cinemamerica becomes the very thing it purports to satirize: an inane monument to the forces of mediocrity. Near the end, when the screenwriter laments, "I suck! Why didn't anyone tell me?" it's all you can do to keep your mouth shut.

Part II of Jeune Lune's epic patience-tester, Lifeliberty, supposedly offers a more optimistic and hopeful vision to balance the cynicism of Cinemamerica. But it's a peculiar brand of optimism at best: Lifeliberty takes place in a postapocalyptic, subterranean netherworld populated by scavenging numbskulls and mutant sewer creatures.

Incredibly, Lifeliberty is even more disjointed and obtuse than its predecessor. The denizens of this bleak underworld--where, as the Alligator Boy (Steve Epp) describes it, "what was above became below"--are a motley lot who make squeaking rat noises and wait for periodic visits from a disheveled huckster (Bob Rosen). He descends from the world above--the so-called Shiny Tower--and trades trinkets for stories. The huckster's bald-headed puppet-friend, Woodruff, is easily the most interesting character in the play, which should give you some idea of how sketchy and undeveloped the rest of the ostensibly living characters are.

In reality, however, there are no characters in Lifeliberty, only representations--signifiers of things larger than themselves that remain undefined and inscrutable throughout. Lifeliberty stubbornly refuses to declare its intentions. In place of a story, random images and references to all kinds of Americana--history, folk songs, literature, and myth--are piled one on top of the other. Hiawatha, Alice in Wonderland, Sitting Bull, Custer, Vietnam, Walt Whitman, Thoreau, the Mayans, Walter Cronkite--all come in for reference. But without a larger context, more disciplined dramaturgy, or something--anything--to tie it all together, both Cinemamerica and Lifeliberty look for all the world like a disorganized mess of epic ambition, and small-scale results.

This unsuccessful alchemy is frustrating to watch, partly because Jeune Lune's past collaborative efforts have yielded some of its most inspired work. And it is impossible to ignore this project's tremendous promise, even while the hours pass and the action flounders in front of you. Something important and worthwhile and maybe even courageous is struggling mightily to take shape on Jeune Lune's stage--or at least something staggeringly, even impressively, self-indulgent. The point of it all appears to elude the actors as much as the audience, though, which leaves everyone adrift in a sea of perplexing disappointment. When The Pursuit of Happiness is over, it's hard to say the journey was worth the grief, or to be sure, even, that the ship ever got away from the dock.

 
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