By Charles Mee; Directed by Anne Bogart


Leon Ingulsrud and Akiko Aizawa in bobrauschenbergamerica. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

BOTTOM LINE: It may be a bit of an inside scoop, hard for outsiders to interpret, but if you want to experience the absolute edge of theatrical art in the 21st century, Anne Bogart and the SITI company are a must see.

“Once in a generation, the world discovers a new way of telling a story.” – Kenneth Tynan

The big crowd at the Dance Theater Workshop for this revival of SITI’s signature 2001 work was every theater marketer’s dream: young, hip, engaged. That’s because this is New York, a place crawling with actors and directors and acting and directing students, and if you fall into any of those categories, then you have probably at one point or another been blown away by the work of Anne Bogart and the SITI company. The 25 pieces they have created since 1992, and the incredible melding of techniques that they use to make them, have made such an indelible impact on this thing we call theater, that we’ll still be trying to suss out what it all meant 50 years from now.

Theater geeks (myself first among them) will want to explain this by telling you all about Mary Overlie and the Viewpoints and how Bogart and Tina Landau used them in the theater, but don’t let us. We’re boring and didactic. Bogart, playwright Charles Mee, and the actors at SITI are anything but. They have found a way to use the simplest parts of the stage – space and time, movement and stillness, light and dark, music and movement – to make theater that feels the way movies and videos do: fragmented and prismatic, busy and chaotic, ridiculous and sublime.

Their vision of the art of theater perfectly suits Bob Rauschenberg himself. A highly influential multi-genre artist, he embraced all the energy, optimism, contradiction and madness of 1950s America, then threw it onto the canvas – literally. His “Combines” juxtaposed found objects, commercial art processes, and formal art in a way that reflected the exploding mid-century American culture. The treatment here takes the same vibrant aesthetic and runs with it. I’m not sure I can describe the piece any better than Jennifer Lerner and Isabelle Deconinck’s press release, so I won’t try.

bobrauschenbergamerica is a wild road trip through the American landscape and psyche as Rauschenberg might have conceived it had he been a playwright instead of a visual artist. More than a biographical portrait, this multi-disciplinary work is a rollicking collage-montage tribute to the happy, improvisational quality of Rauschenberg’s singular vision, in which junk can be beautiful and the mixing of incongruous elements can become a statement. The result is a series of unpredictable and colorful vignettes, which incorporate kaleidoscopic images ranging from moonlight waltzes to square dancing, to unorthodox romantic pairings and the pleasure of making a human-sized martini. Seamlessly moving through time, bobrauschenbergamerica is the history of a nation and culture, portraying America as land of endless vistas, heartbreaking disappointments and unbridled optimism.” 

Thank you, Jennifer and Isabelle.

This piece premiered in March of 2001, a time when the U.S. was still a sleepy giant flush with its own success. Almost a decade later, much has changed. The endless vistas of Rauschen-berg’s America have shortened quite a bit since the towers fell. Now, we watch the utterly charming cast (a particular nod to Will Bond as the nerdy father figure with the pocket square and beaming smile and Akiko Aizawa as a Japanese-American with a pop-culture fetish) with a curious nostalgia as they prance over James Schutte’s gigantic American flag set. We warmly remember (even if we were not there) the simplicity of the rural Texan life that was Rauschenberg’s youth. We ruefully smile at the aimless gluttony of Ellen Lauren’s confused romantic. These images and gestures stir the ashes of our patriotism in ways that are at once funny, painful, and emotionally ambiguous.

Yet whenever the ideas become opaque or the connective tissue stretched, Ms. Bogart and her ensemble spin the energy skyward with dazzling, living, breathing, active moments of stage time: a snap lighting cue, a sudden silence, a favorite pop tune, an unexpected dance step. These are the kinds of livewire theater that many spend a lifetime chasing: here they come one after another for a full 90 minutes. If we don’t live anymore in the innocence of the country that gave rise to Rauschenberg, we can rest our hopes for the future on the joy, artistry and endless surprises of Bogart and SITI.

(bobrauschenbergamerica plays at Dance Theater Workshop, 219 West 19th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, through May 16, 2010. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 1:30 and 5:30 pm. Tickets are $25 ($20 for Seniors and Students). Running time is approximately ninety minutes. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit or, or call 212.924.0077.)