La MaMa caps its 2004 Puppet Series Festival
with "Motel," the puppet play of Jean-Claude van Itallie's "America
Hurrah" trilogy. "America Hurrah" was the watershed off-Broadway
play of the sixties; it was originally presented by La MaMa in 1965 and
revived there in 1981. George Ferencz will stage the masterpiece based
on the original direction of Michael Kahn. Puppets will be re-created
by Jane Catherine Shaw.
With "Motel" in its Puppet Series Festival, La MaMa is, in
the words of founder/artistic director Ellen Stewart, "showing a
little bit of its puppet history." The work was the second play with
puppets to be done by La MaMa (the first was "Head Hunting"
by Pagood Wouk Kang, directed by Andy Milligan, in 1962). "Motel"
was written in 1964 and opened in 1965 under the direction of Michael
Kahn. It was an immediate sensation. Its giant puppets rampaging in the
tacky Midwestern motel room of this play predated the Who's smashing of
guitars and encapsulated the emerging soul of an era. "Motel"
was produced Off-Broadway and subsequently toured Denmark and France on
a commercial tour directed by Tom O'Horgan with dolls heads by Robert
Describing the play, Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Times, "In
a 'respectable, decent and homey' motel…a massive Mother Hubbard
made of very clammy clay revolves and revolves, like a warning beacon,
welcoming the transient to a haven filled with the books of John Galsworthy
and 'toilets that flush of their own accord.' Meantime, two oversize grotesques,
male and female, enter a paid-for room to strip their flesh-tinted Band-Aid
bodies and then to destroy the room wantonly, book by book, toilet by
toilet." Norman Mailer wrote, "It is possible that 'Motel' is
the best one-act I've ever seen."
Playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie was one of Ellen Stewart's original
"La MaMa playwrights" and is author of over thirty plays, translations
and musicals. He was also a principal playwright of the Open Theater,
for which he wrote "The Serpent." Among his other plays are
"The Tibetan Book of the Dead," "The Traveler," Genet's
"The Balcony," and new English versions of the four major plays
of Chekhov. Andrei Serban staged his adaptation of "Uncle Vanya"
at La MaMa in 1983, featuring Joe Chaikin and F. Murray Abraham. Van Itallie's
more recent La MaMa productions include "Ancient Boys," a play
about a gay artist living with AIDS (1991), "Guys Dreamin'"
(1997), his New York acting debut, and "War, Sex and Dancing"
(1999), an autobiographical one-person show.
The production history of the "America Hurrah" trilogy ("Interview,"
"TV" and "Motel") after its initial La MaMa production
is also interesting to note. It opened Off-Broadway at the Pocket Theatre,
NYC, on November 7, 1966. Joseph Chaikin directed "Interview";
Jacques Levy directed "TV" and "Motel." The producer
was Stephanie Sills. The cast had Ronnie Gilbert, Cynthia Harris, Joyce
Aaron, Brenda Smiley, Conard Fowkes, Henry Calvert, Bill Macy, James Barbosa
and the voice of Ruth White. The dolls in "Motel" were constructed
by Robert Wilson. "America Hurrah" ran 640 performances in New
The trilogy heralded and was the first major dramatic expression of the
anti-Vietnam war movement. Catching theatergoers by surprise, it had a
shock effect on the culture. Overseas, productions were equally sensational.
When the New York production toured to the Royal Court Theatre in London
in 1967, the Royal Court registered as a private club to avoid the censor’s
ban, but the censor prevented the planned move of the play to a larger
theatre in the West End. In Sydney, Australia, a cheering audience formed
a barricade to prevent vice officers from arresting the actors after the
play’s performance. "America Hurrah" has been performed
frequently all over the world, and translated, among other languages,
into French and Japanese. It was last revived by La MaMa in 1981.
Director George Ferencz is well-known for his productions at La MaMa
including a distinguished production of Sam Shepard's "Tooth of Crime,"
a trilogy of Shepard's jazz plays with Obie-winning music by Max Roach,
and Mac Wellman's "Harm's Way." He is now curator of a play
readings series at La MaMa which presents concert readings of new scripts
written for experimental theater at La MaMa's Galleria, an art gallery
at 6 East First Street.
Jane Catherine Shaw (puppets) has traveled to Turkey and India to collaborate
on La MaMa productions. She works frequently with Theodora Skipitares
on many productions. Her plays at La MaMa include "The Lone Runner"
(1999) and "Bed of Light" (2001). She is artistic director of
the Voice4Vision Puppet Festival, to be presented by Theater for the New
City Nov. 4 to 14 (www.jsnyc.com/voice4vision.htm).
Further info and photos of "America Hurrah" are available online
The La MaMa Puppet Series Festival, September 16 to October 10, also
features multicultural works from India, Poland, Bali, Japan and the Czech
Republic in addition to two that, while crafted in New York, are brimming
with international art forms. The festival is supported by The Henson
International Festival of Puppet Theater and utilizes all three of La
MaMa's performance theaters.