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Theater review: Forum Theatre’s ‘bobrauschenbergamerica’

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Making art can be compelling theater; contextualizing it is far trickier. Charles L. Mee’s “bobrauschenberg­america” attempts this more cerebral assignment, and while the piece at times manages to animate the pop artist’s whimsical spirit, the evening ultimately feels less like an exhilarating original than a tiresome reproduction.

Not so much a play as a kinetic catalogue raisonne, the show sprays thoughts, facts and images about and by artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) across Forum Theatre’s Silver Spring stage. Examples of his three-dimensional collages, or “combines,” built out of everyday objects, are assembled in front of us, and characters such as Bob’s Mom (Annie Houston) materialize on a replica of an American porch to deliver their impressions of the artist and the world in which he formulated his vision.

“Art was not a part of our lives,” Bob’s Mom recounts at one point in the kaleidoscopic narrative. Of course, the observation must be taken both as fact and as irony, for it was out of the detritus of Americana that Rauschenberg assembled some of his most important pieces.

Barbecue grills and other symbols of family life, snippets of popular music and references to historical events, such as the Los Alamos nuclear tests, find their way into the proceedings, which have been staged by Derek Goldman. The production, in other words, is constructed in a way to mirror Rauschenberg’s process, or at least to come as close to that idea as theater can.

It sure sounds in the recounting like a great idea. But “bobrauschenbergamerica” is one of those performance pieces that is much more enticing in the spelling-out than the sitting-through. As the evening wears on, the efforts to create a stage language for the artist’s work become more and more repetitive, and the dramatic souffle starts to pancake.

While a diverting interlude unfolds, in which a makeshift Slip ’n Slide is devised out of the ingredients of martinis — a pair of actors perform the purportedly gin-laced sliding across a plastic mat — other such stunts give off a whiff of installation-art pretension. In one, actor Aaron Reeder executes what feels like a never-to-end series of forward and backward rolls into a pile of laundry.

Forum’s space in Round House Theatre’s Silver Spring annex has been decorated efficiently and economically by gifted set designer Natsu Onoda Power; admirers of Rauschenberg will recognize the bathtubs and other objects the artist incorporated into his combines. Goldman’s youthful cast adopts an agreeably gung-ho attitude — the right affect for this academic evening, one that might in some compressed version make a decent teaching tool for an art-history class.

bobrauschenbergamerica

by Charles L. Mee. Directed by Derek Goldman. Set, Natsu Onoda Power; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Paul Frydrychowski; sound, Veronika Vorel; choreography, Kelly Mayfield. With Joe Brack, Kailei Isaac, Cliff Williams, Michael Dove, Augie Praley, Michael Dove, Julie Garner, Chelsey Christensen, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through June 25 at Round House Theatre, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Visit www.forumtheatredc.org or call 240-644-1100.

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