SINCE THE fab '60s are enjoying something of a second life in Orwell's '84 -- there's a resurgence of interest in pop fashion, radical politics, Big Issues, even psychedelic music -- Woolly Mammoth seems to have timed its smashing season-opener just right.
The Woollies, Washington's most plugged-in theater group, have put up a sharp-edged revival of Jean-Claude Italie's startling, satiric "America Hurrah," an acid look at America which, when it opened in 1966, rattled playgoers' complacency about themselves as it shook up ideas about what theater could be. Director Antoni Sadlak/Jaworksi opted against mounting this seminal experimental work as a period piece; instead he plays it as a contemporary comment, acknowledging the nearly two decades of events that have transpired since. It was a wise choice.
The techniques are still those originated off-Broadway in the '60s: projected images, ambient sound, overlapping conversations, audience participation, an absence of distinct characters. If it all seems a bit predictable or tame, perhaps that's because so many of the ideas born with this show and others like it have been absorbed by theater, television, rock and performance art.
The show's three acts are opened and closed by images of the presidents who bracket the decades -- JFK beams benevolently down at the audience at the start; dimestore photos of Reagan/Bush adorn a motel room wall at the end.
"Interview" is a series of busy vignettes depicting the indignities of life in the anonymous society. Frustrated jobseekers are confronted by a phalanx of mirror-shaded minions in a paper-pushing, rubber-stamping frenzy. A woman's ravings are ignored on a crowded subway car. Citified lemmings are bullied and taunted in a physical-fitness class by an instructor promising movie-star glamor.
In "TV," three office staffers bicker and flirt and sometimes work, against a blur of televised noise and images. As competition from the larger-than-life televised chaos makes it increasingly difficult to pay attention to the trio's petty problems and imperfections, the situations of the TV characters and the "real people" gradually blur and reverse.
The most notorious of the three segments is "Motel," played by three mute oversized "dolls" and narrated by a disembodied voice. As a motel proprietress placidly natters about the American way and the bland comforts of home, a pair of newlyweds go on a lavish drug binge and violently trash their motel room and her. It's a true American nightmare, provoking laughter and unease simultaneously.
Though "America Hurrah" doesn't exactly feel dated, it retains little of the shock value it must have had when it debuted. It's not so easy to surprise an audience anymore, particularly with a message that urbanites are automatons overwhelmed by media and oppressed by technology and faceless bureaucracy.
But it doesn't hurt to be reminded, especially during this time of electronics and elections. And in this good-looking, well- acted resurrection, the play's warning about the numbering and numbing of Americans seems as pointed as ever.
AMERICA HURRAH -- At Woolly Mammoth Theater through November 10.