Bob Rauschenberg died three years ago,but he was still was around in 2001 when Charles L. Mee first saw his tribute to the pioneering collagist performed. Though Rauschenberg painted, made prints, and once deliberately erased an entire drawing by Willem de Kooning, his found-object “combines” are probably the works for which he’s best remembered. In the 1950s and early ’60s, he’d walk around on trash pickup day, helping himself to whatever bits of discarded Americana called out to him. These he cobbled together into perceptive, funny totems of American contradiction and abundance. He always denied these pieces carried any hidden meaning, but it’s unlikely he meant them as a critique. Discussing his combines in 2005, he spoke of “the generosity of finding surprises,” which is actually a pretty perfect summation of Forum Theatre’s wide-eyed new production of Mee’s play. Generosity and surprise abound, but director Derek Goldman has tapped deep wells of melancholy and insight, too. Plus square dancing, a riotous feat of agitated cake-eating by Julie Garner, and—how does one say it?—a macro-scale martini, mixed over a makeshift slip-and-slide with statuesque Chelsey Christensen as the swizzle stick and burly Cliff Williams III as the—well, he gets to slide down the side of the martini glass, too.
Plot, schmot: Though we follow, intermittently, three couples as they negotiate the problem of love, this is a show built from vignettes and alchemy. Annie Houston, identified as Bob’s mom, clicks through slides of the artist’s oeuvre, narrating the images as if they were family snapshots. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh brings Tom Waits’ vocal cadence to his role as an enterprising homeless man who wants to direct a big movie, and who briefly lures Garner away from her dowdy but loyal beau, Wilson (Forum Artistic Director Michael Dove, making a welcome return to acting after a years-long absence). Aaron Reeder and Augie Praley dream of raising cattle together. Joe Brack imbues the delivery of a pizza with revelation and suspense.
Bits of discarded Americana, you might call these largely modular, self-contained scenes. But far from feeling indulgent or undisciplined, the play maintains a dancer’s grace and ease for the whole of its 105 intermissionless minutes. It’s the most athletic offering we’ve seen yet from Forum, and while only the sinewy Reeder looks like a dancer, one of its great pleasures is the way we’re invited to watch its physically disparate cast move through the Round House space, wrapped in painterly hues by lighting designer Paul Frydrychowski.
Natsu Onoda Power’s marvelous set—a tower of boxes and traffic signs on one side, a miniature of a farmhouse-with-porch on the other (the audience occupies the remaining two sides of the room)—strongly evokes the combines, too, right down to the presence of “Monogram,” Rauschenberg’s stuffed-Angora-goat-stuck-in-a-car-tire. Of course, the animal looks more like a piñata than an actual goat here. It’s the kind of liberty that seems utterly appropriate.