"It is, all in all, an evening of theatre that challenges and stimulates." - nytheatre.com
Jean-Claude van Itallie ("The Tibetan Book of the Dead," "The Cherry Orchard," "The Serpent," "Master and Margarita") is writing "The Mother's Return" as an addition to his seminal work of modern drama, the trilogy known as "America Hurrah." Theatre Research Ensemble (TReE) will perform "America Hurrah Revisited & The Mother's Return."
This past summer director Josh Adler and two of his Theatre Research Ensemble actors, Helen Nesteruk and Noelle Neglia, took an "Acting and Being" workshop in Western Massachusetts at playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie's Shantigar Foundation for Theater, Meditation and Healing. Van Itallie and Adler were inspired to collaborate on a new production from van Itallie's legendary "America Hurrah" (to contain "Motel" and part of "Interview") plus a new play of van Itallie's, "The Mother's Return," based on van Itallie's recent political dreams.
ABOUT THE PLAYS
"Motel" is an excursion into Theater of the Absurd. Three giant colorfully styled doll-puppets, with actors inside, enact a scene in a motel on Route 66. A landlady checks in a man and a blonde woman who might be straight out of "In Cold Blood." While the landlady recites 15 minutes of platitudes about hooked rugs, self-flushing toilets and other features of the motel,the couple scrawl graffiti on the walls and smash the place. "Motel" was written in 1962, originally titled "America Hurrah," and opened in 1965 under the direction of Michael Kahn. When it was subsequently presented in a trilogy of plays by Jean-Claude van Itallie, the three plays became collectively titled "America Hurrah" and the puppet play was renamed "Motel."
"Interview" is an employment interview, treated in a satirical, stylized, mordantly comic way. Four masked hiring executives interview a scrubwoman, a house painter, a banker and a lady's maid. While commonplace enough, suddenly the most innocent statements become foreboding. The questioners are trying to destroy the dignity of the four clients while the latter fight for their self-respect. The audience are thrust into awareness as the process exposes itself. "Interview" was written circa 1964. It premiered (under the title "Pavanne") at La MaMa, directed by Peter Feldman. As "Pavanne," it was directed by Tom O'Horgan on National Educational Television as part of "3 From La Mama."
"The Mother's Return, a work in progress" is a dream shared with the audience. Van Itallie explains, "The title refers to the present dawning of the Age of Aquarius when we must welcome the Feminine as our new godhead. In the present declining state of the world ruled by greedy corporations, with global warming, mass hunger, and the oppression of minorities especially women the Great Lady is our best hope. She will teach us to raise children more lovingly. When they come of age, they won't be fundamentalists of any kind, they won't wage wars, they won't torture, oppress, or hate. How may we know She's coming? We can perceive her in our dreams." He continues, "As we dream, we're artists observing the world. The dream is the dreamer's way of seeing. Each time I dream or write a play, I'm inventing a form. A play is a way to get into the audience's dream. How to stage dreams so the audience will recognize them as their own? With rigorous attention not changing anything to make the dream more "real," logical, or less painful. Let the dream be the message."
PRODUCTION HISTORY OF "AMERICA HURRAH"
"America Hurrah" was one of the watershed off-Broadway plays of the sixties; it was originally presented by La MaMa in 1965 and revived there in 1981 for La MaMa's 30th anniversary. In 1965, the play "Motel" (then called "America Hurrah") toured to Paris and Copenhagen, directed by Tom O'Horgan. The trilogy "America Hurrah" (comprised of "Motel," "Interview" and "TV") opened Off-Broadway at the Pocket Theatre, NYC, on November 7, 1966 with Joseph Chaikin directing "Interview" and Jacques Levy directing "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 York.
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.
Describing "Motel," 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."
In October, 2004, "Motel" was revived as part of La MaMa's Puppet Series Festival. That production was directed by George Ferencz with puppets re-created by Jane Catherine Shaw and set design by Peter Case, all based on the original version that was directed by Michael Kahn.
Josh Adler is Artistic Director of the Theatre Research Ensemble (TReE), the Arts Coordinator for the Interdependence Project and a co-creater of the Time Interchange of New York. He is a professional videographer, live events producer and an acting teacher. He also creates photography, facilitates expressive arts workshops and performs in New York City. He received his MFA in Acting from the University of Iowa.
Jean-Claude van Itallie was born in Brussels in 1936, raised in Great Neck, Long Island, and graduated from Harvard University in 1958. He was one of Ellen Stewart's original "LaMaMa playwrights" and a principal playwright of Joe Chaikin's Open Theater. For that group, he wrote what has been called the classic ensemble play, "The Serpent."
In the seventies, van Itallie wrote his frequently-produced new English versions of the four major plays of Chekhov (published by Applause Books as "Chekhov, the Major Plays). "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" premiered at LaMaMa in 1983. His 1985 translation of Jean Genet's "The Balcony" was produced by the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "The Traveler," van Itallie's play about an aphasic composer, premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1987. "Struck Dumb," van Itallie's monologue written with/for Joseph Chaikin, premiered at the Taper Too in Los Angeles in l988 and was presented by The American Place Theatre in New York City in 1991.
"Ancient Boys," van Itallie's play about a gay artist living with AIDS, premiered at LaMaMa Annex, February, 1991. His play "Master and Margarita," adapted from Bulgakhov's novel, was presented by Theatre for the New City, NYC, in May, 1993. Among van Itallie's other plays and translations are: "King of the United States," "Bag Lady," "The Doris Plays," "The Hunter and the Bird," "Medea" and "The Taming of Jacques."
As a performer, van Itallie appeared in 1988 in Boulder, Colorado in "Flesh Chronicles," conceived with choreographer Nancy Spanier. He appeared at the Art Bank in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts in "Guys Dreamin'" in the fall of 1996. This largely autobiographical play, written by the three actors appearing in it, had its NY debut at LaMaMa in May, 1998. Van Itallie's one person autobiographical show, "War, Sex and Dreams," began at the Art Bank in Shelburne Falls (with accompanist Steve Sweeting) and had its NY debut at La MaMa.
In 2004, van Itallie's "Light" had its world premiere in Pasadena, California at the Theatre at Boston Court. His latest play, "Fear Itself, secrets of the White House," premiered at Theater for the New City in 2006.
Van Itallie's book on play writing, "The Playwright's Workbook," was published in 1997 by Applause Books, NYC. He is also a painter of large black-on-white calligraphies and his exhibit, "Characters," was at the Open Center Gallery in NYC in May, 1993.
Van Itallie has transformed the old farm in Western Massachusetts where he's lived for decades into Shantigar Foundation for Theater, Meditation and Healing (www.Shantigar.org). He has taught play writing and performance at Princeton, NYU, Harvard, Yale School of Drama, Amherst, Columbia, University of Colorado, Boulder, Naropa Institute and many other colleges. He now teaches workshops in writing and creativity at Shantigar, in Los Angeles and in NYC.
The actors are Autumn Horn, Helen Nesteruk, Diana De Luna, Noelle Neglia, Randy Noojin, Lou Boretto, Matthew Tischler, and Cam Kornman.
The Theatre Research Ensemble, or TReE (http://www.TReEplays.org), is a participatory arts ensemble dedicated to developing insights into interdependence, educational methods, and social activism. TReE offers workshops, performances and demonstrations based on the models of the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association, the Living Theatre, Eugenio Barba, Herbert Blau, Jerzy Grotowski, Augusto Boal, Anne Halprin, Antero Alli and many others. It is a unique branch of known as The Interdependence Project (www.theIDproject.org), which brings a secular and highly accessible approach to studying and practicing Buddhist meditation, psychology, and philosophy.
by Martin Denton
America Hurrah premiered at La MaMa 45 years ago and became one of the seminal protest theatre works of a decade that was marked by productive protest everywhere. Two of its three sections—"Interview" and "Motel"—are included in America Hurrah Revisited, the first half of a double bill presented by Theatre Research Ensemble at The Club at La MaMa for a two-weekend run. People my age and younger will likely never have seen America Hurrah performed, though they probably know something about it; and so this glimpse at these two works, both of which attack ideas like conformity and complacency overtly via their content and covertly via their presentation and style, is fascinating to attend: in them we see not only the combative anti-establishment politics that defined a generation of American thinkers and artists but also artistic innovations that have become the norm in present-day theatre. Playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie probably is more influential than he ever imagined in helping to shape—with collaborators like Joseph Chaikin and Tom O'Horgan—much of what underlies the indie theatre movement of today.
But the real reason to head to La MaMa just now is to see the second half of this double bill, The Mother's Return, a dream play, which is a new and quite ravishing work by van Itallie. The press release tells us that this is the "fourth chapter" of the America Hurrah trilogy (a neat bit of contradiction right there), one that brings the story up to date. In it, a group of volunteers at a Greenwich Village soup kitchen prepare for their workday (and then, at the end, clean up and close down); and in the course of their day they share dreams and memories and stories. The play, a stunning bit of stream-of-consciousness, is by turns poetic, touching, and absurd. Van Itallie remains an innovator, for it's really not like anything I've ever seen.
Running through the piece are important themes that remind us of our humanity—helping those less fortunate, obviously, and also a whole host of anxieties and obsessions that define post-9/11 America: aging, security, celebrity, foreign-ness and international culture, the widening gap between rich and poor. The political content of The Mother's Return mostly sneaks up on you, though; this is primarily a collage of stories about people engaging with one another in all kinds of contexts and all kinds of ways. It's quite lovely in its humanness and delightful in its deliberate non-linear-ness.
The entire production is directed by Josh Adler and performed by an ensemble of eight actors who, happily, reflect the diversity of our city in terms of age as well as ethnicity—how welcome is that? Most seem particularly at ease with the movement aspects of the piece—The Mother's Return is presented on a bare stage with virtually no props, but we can "see," for example, Matthew Tischler putting cheese out on a plate, even though all of his actions are mimed. Joining Tischler on stage are Cam Kornman, Randy Noojin, Autumn Horne, Noelle Neglia, Diana de Luna, Helen Nesteruk, and Lou Baretto; they work together very well.
"Motel" is staged with puppets in a way that differs considerably from the original version you may have read about. "Interview," which turns the standard job interview into a kind of angry fugue, features some interesting synchronized movement along with van Itallie's imaginatively derived text.
It is, all in all, an evening of theatre that challenges and stimulates.