America Hurrah, revisited and The Mother's Return, a dream play
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 15, 2010
America Hurrah premiered at La MaMa 45 years ago and became one of the seminal protest theatre works of a decade that was marked by productive protest everywhere. Two of its three sections—"Interview" and "Motel"—are included in America Hurrah Revisited, the first half of a double bill presented by Theatre Research Ensemble at The Club at La MaMa for a two-weekend run. People my age and younger will likely never have seen America Hurrah performed, though they probably know something about it; and so this glimpse at these two works, both of which attack ideas like conformity and complacency overtly via their content and covertly via their presentation and style, is fascinating to attend: in them we see not only the combative anti-establishment politics that defined a generation of American thinkers and artists but also artistic innovations that have become the norm in present-day theatre. Playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie probably is more influential than he ever imagined in helping to shape—with collaborators like Joseph Chaikin and Tom O'Horgan—much of what underlies the indie theatre movement of today.
But the real reason to head to La MaMa just now is to see the second half of this double bill, The Mother's Return, a dream play, which is a new and quite ravishing work by van Itallie. The press release tells us that this is the "fourth chapter" of the America Hurrah trilogy (a neat bit of contradiction right there), one that brings the story up to date. In it, a group of volunteers at a Greenwich Village soup kitchen prepare for their workday (and then, at the end, clean up and close down); and in the course of their day they share dreams and memories and stories. The play, a stunning bit of stream-of-consciousness, is by turns poetic, touching, and absurd. Van Itallie remains an innovator, for it's really not like anything I've ever seen.
Running through the piece are important themes that remind us of our humanity—helping those less fortunate, obviously, and also a whole host of anxieties and obsessions that define post-9/11 America: aging, security, celebrity, foreign-ness and international culture, the widening gap between rich and poor. The political content of The Mother's Return mostly sneaks up on you, though; this is primarily a collage of stories about people engaging with one another in all kinds of contexts and all kinds of ways. It's quite lovely in its humanness and delightful in its deliberate non-linear-ness.
The entire production is directed by Josh Adler and performed by an ensemble of eight actors who, happily, reflect the diversity of our city in terms of age as well as ethnicity—how welcome is that? Most seem particularly at ease with the movement aspects of the piece—The Mother's Return is presented on a bare stage with virtually no props, but we can "see," for example, Matthew Tischler putting cheese out on a plate, even though all of his actions are mimed. Joining Tischler on stage are Cam Kornman, Randy Noojin, Autumn Horne, Noelle Neglia, Diana de Luna, Helen Nesteruk, and Lou Baretto; they work together very well.
"Motel" is staged with puppets in a way that differs considerably from the original version you may have read about. "Interview," which turns the standard job interview into a kind of angry fugue, features some interesting synchronized movement along with van Itallie's imaginatively derived text.
It is, all in all, an evening of theatre that challenges and stimulates.