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Remaking American Theater: Charles Mee, Anne Bogart, and the Siti Company (review)

From: Theatre Journal
Volume 60, Number 2, May 2008
pp. 330-331 | 10.1353/tj.0.0037

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This text, an outstanding addition to an impressive series edited by Don Wilmeth, offers a vital contribution to the study of two of the most significant theatre artists working today. It is the first fulllength text linking Mee and Bogart in style, content, approach to craft, and influence on modern theatre practice. Applying the framework of "remaking" to Mee's playwriting and Bogart's approach to directing and audienceship, Cummings draws his lines of argument so convincingly and develops the connections between these two artists in such a compelling fashion that one wonders why they haven't been the subject of a joint study before. Cummings also offers a great service to the theatre community on several counts: he clarifies Mee's creative process; provides a context for the emergence of Mee and Bogart in our time; and examines the training, rehearsal, and performance practices of the SITI (Saratoga International Theater Institute) Company created by Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki. Cummings's innovative organization, skillfully woven narrative, and keenly perceptive eye make this text a joy to read and an insightful look into a potentially bewildering performance aesthetic.

Cummings divides his study into two sections. Part 1, "A Playwright, a Director, and a Company," presents a necessary background for Mee's development as a playwright, the complementary development of Bogart as a director, and the SITI Company's emergence as a unique American theatre ensemble. Here Cummings demonstrates his skill at weaving a narrative out of mountains of disjointed textual evidence and identifying patterns in an array of disparate, performance-based, and often visually dependent materials. All of this builds toward his treatment of their first full-blown collaboration, the 2001 production of bobrauschenbergamerica.

In part 2, "The Making of bobrauschenbergamerica," Cummings walks the reader through the development of a production he considers a signature piece for these artists. Mee/Bogart/SITI's bobrauschenber-gamerica consists of a loosely connected series of vignettes projected through the imagined eyes of Robert Rauschenberg, the iconic postmodern American artist described by Cummings (and many art critics) as "the most significant visual artist of the second half of the twentieth century" (163). The production presents disjointed story elements and archetypal characters in non sequitur environments; the piece is notable for its absence of consistent narrative and an aesthetic that celebrates, as more than one reviewer commented, the "glory of mess" (259). In five chapters, Cummings takes the reader through Mee's preliminary discussions and lists of ideas, the integration of SITI's summer 2000 training sessions with script development, early rehearsals in fall 2000, twenty days of intense final rehearsals in spring 2001, the performances at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, and revivals of the play between 2001 and 2004 as well as subsequent projects of Mee, Bogart, and SITI. Several useful appendices also offer a performance history of bobrauschenbergamerica, a SITI Company production history, and a list of Mee's plays and productions.

By framing Mee and Bogart as artists fascinated with the process of "remaking" and situating them within the larger postmodern and poststructural concerns of audience co-creation of art, reflexivity, collage, and intertextuality, Cummings has provided an appealing framework within which one can perceive their impact on contemporary American performance. That said, Cummings's rhetorical framework can also be a trap, encouraging readers to see many disparate events occurring before bobrauschenbergamerica as leading logically and inevitably to a production that Cummings positions as the culmination of their work. In spite of that risk, readers will find Cummings's writing clear, evocative, engaging, and infused with insights from a wide range of readings in theatre and art criticism, whatever their levels of exposure to Mee's and Bogart's work. Brilliantly he weaves together the complicated elements of two eclectic lives in art and zeroes in on key moments of discovery in their years-long process of creating a single play.

Cummings's descriptive powers, combined with a healthy exuberance for the work, are excellent. He can describe with an astute eye and evocative language the development of a stage moment through a tortuous path of creation, a physical exploit of a company member onstage, or a complex aspect of their training...



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