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Reviewed by:
  • Ameryka dir. by Nancy Keystone
  • Karen Jean Martinson
Ameryka. Written and directed by Nancy Keystone. Critical Mass Performance Group, Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. February 13, 2016.

As fragments of voices, music, and tones filtered through radio static, the ensemble inhabited the stage in an imagistic introduction to Ameryka. The monochromatic set design was sparse: upstage corners lined with shelves contained the many objects used in performance; downstage, microphones stood before gray walls suggesting radio-booth confessionals; and scattered throughout were massive piles of bricks, dusty and brown. Center stage, candles flickered around an altar where the Virgin Mary came to stand. Gary Cooper strode majestically across the stage as Marshal Kane in High Noon. Government agents in stark black-and-white suits walked briskly, with purpose and conviction. Eighteenth-century generals passed jazz musicians, while a Native American chief haunted the periphery. With each entrance, these figures removed a single brick, almost imperceptibly reconfiguring the space. Finally, a Polish woman prayed before Mary, crossed herself, and stuffed the candles into her purse. Watched by Polish security officers, she was violently arrested, and we were thrust into the play.

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Critical Mass Performance Group ensemble members display aggression across historical time and space in Ameryka. (Photo: Patti McGuire.)

Critical Mass Performance Group, LA Weekly’s best theatre company of 2013, collaboratively creates highly theatrical new works and adaptations that feature stunning imagery, evocative physicality, and deft language. Central to the ensemble’s approach is extensive research that fuels physical explorations and object work in the workshopping process. Exercises of repetition and accumulation enable the creation of densely layered, richly allusive work. Committed to taking whatever time a project requires, Ameryka was first performed in 2010 at the Network of Ensemble Theaters’ Micro-Fest in Los Angeles. Five years later saw its world premiere. [End Page 454]

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Ray Ford (Gene Jefferson) kneels before his suitcase of burdens as Lorne Green (Curtis Brown) observes in Ameryka. (Photo: Turner Munch.)

[End Page 455]

Ameryka tracked the historic intersections between Poland and the United States. A perpetually occupied and over-policed Poland “dreams of America” (8) as a site of independence, equality, and unrestricted expression. As such, Poland became the lens that magnified the gap between America’s rhetoric of freedom and its contradictory enactment. Ameryka primarily explored three different moments, layered one atop the other: the American Revolution; the late 1950s; and the 1980s. Discourses of freedom were counterbalanced with instances of oppression. Thomas Jefferson discussed liberty with Tadeusz Kościuszko while a slave served wine; Polish Central Film Distribution artists reveled in High Noon while Hollywood figures testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); Ronald Reagan’s soaring rhetoric supported the Gdańsk strike while he busted unions at home. Ameryka made visible the many instances when American democracy failed its own tenets.

Although Ameryka tackled many issues, most trenchant was its dissection of racial oppression, which it posited as a constant we have yet to address. By interweaving historic time and place, Ameryka traced the thread of racism backward to the nation’s founding—reliant as it was upon slavery and the dislocation and genocide of Native Americans—and forward to our contemporary moment. Polish characters continually condemned racist practices, confused that such injustice was tolerated; because they held America as an imagined ideal, they more fiercely demanded that it live up to its principles. Parallels were drawn between the activism of the civil rights movement and the Solidarity movement; several scenes placed these two historic moments onstage simultaneously, their dialogue overlapping and stylized movements mirroring each other. History collided; all pasts inhabited the performative present to converse across time and nation, as characters attempted to articulate, and engender, the concept of freedom.

If competing rhetorics in Ameryka were shown to mask ongoing oppressions, movement and objects revealed the labor that goes into building a nation, an ideology, a dream, or even a façade. Physical interludes highlighted the violence embedded in historic moments: tea cup smashing and brick hurtling stood in for the American Revolution; ritualized oath-taking, cigarette smoking, and coffee drinking...


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pp. 454-456
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