What would happen if Robert Rauschenberg, a visual artist best known for his collagist viewpoint, happened to create a play? The answer can be found in SITI Company's 2001 work, bobrauschenbergamerica, playing this week at the Walker Art Center. The Texas native, now nearly 80 years old, has never been a stranger to the stage. In the 1950s Rauschenberg began creating sets for choreographers, including Merce Cunningham and later Trisha Brown, and in his 1963 performance "Pelican," he donned roller skates and a parachute as if he was piloting a postmodern DaVinci flying machine. Still, the idea of this particular artist let loose on the stage makes for endless possibilities: Rauschenberg is known for his knack for creating synchronicity between seemingly unrelated found objects, a revolutionary concept even in the commonplace multimedia mishmash of the 21st century.
Director Anne Bogart, recently interviewed by phone from New York, recalls that she initially approached playwright Charles Mee to write a play about Andy Warhol. "He politely turned me down and the reason he did was because he hated Warhol," she explains. "But a few years later he asked me about writing a play about Rauschenberg, and that's when we found out what a real artist was about. We found out what freedom was about."
Bogart, who co-founded SITI in 1992 with Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, says the troupe, accustomed to following specific techniques, soon found itself in new and challenging territory. "It was so different from how we worked on any other play," says Bogart. "I'd ask Chuck a question and he'd say, 'Do whatever feels best,' and we were horrified coming from our puritanical work ethic. But Rauschenberg celebrated the detritus of our culture and he celebrated it as art so we got it. It was in the spirit of the way we rehearsed. I hope that the immersion in the piece has altered my DNA."
Freed from the tyranny of transitions, the actors fashioned a stream-of-consciousness narrative tied loosely together by the texts of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Walt Whitman, among others. Musical numbers and dance sequences spill across the stage. There's nothing really overtly biographical, save for appearances by Kelly Maurer as "Bob's mom" (her constant refrain is "art was never a part of our lives"). But we plainly see the things Rauschenberg likes, including movement, roller skaters, unexpected juxtapositions, and a constantly shifting array of unusual items. According to Bogart, the characters are "all archetypes you find on any street in the United States" including a trucker, an ingenue, a pizza delivery boy, and a bikini-clad babe. And yet these common characters do odd things: Ellen Lauren deftly devours an entire cake over the course of a monologue, for example, and Leon Pauli and Akiko Aizawa, in the work's ultimate moment of freedom, frolic on a plastic sheet coated with a freshly mixed martini.
All of the action takes place against the backdrop of a huge American flag, meant to evoke Rauschenberg's volatile artistic and personal relationship with Jasper Johns and enhanced by set designer James Schuette with blinking lights for stars. Still, the flag is a loaded image, especially these days. "It was so far from anything I ever imagined I would have the balls to do," says Bogart. "We just performed the work last week in Paris and some people walked out immediately."
Similarly gutsy is the act of one artist commenting on another in such an extensive manner. Bogart had done it before with Bob, an equally provocative take on elusive experimental theater director Robert Wilson, as well as other works. Rauschenberg saw the piece and Bogart reports that he smiled throughout. Her next subject? Perhaps Gore Vidal. "I want to learn how to stand on their shoulders, which is why I choose these people," says Bogart. "I want to eat them alive and shit them out and be them." It's an attitude that Rauschenberg, who once said he wanted to work "in the gap between art and life," would adore.