October 18 marked the 49th birthday of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
, one of the city's most famous and important downtown theatrical institutions. It's all too appropriate then, that as the organization enters its 50th year, they are presenting one of the most important works ever to have been staged by the theater, Motel
(later incorporated into a trilogy titled America Hurrah
containing the plays Motel
, and TV
), written by Jean Claude van Italie. This new iteration of the work, presented by Theatre Research Ensemble
, runs under the title of America Hurrah, revisited
(featuring slightly updated versions of Interview
), along with a new third piece by van Italie titled, The Mother's Return, a dream play
, running through October 24 in La MaMa's Club space.
In its original iteration Motel
premiered at La MaMa in 1965 and it marked an incredibly important moment in American theater. The work helped to launch not only van Italie's career, but also that of its original director Michael Kahn
(now the head of D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company
), and most famously, Robert Wilson
, whose very first job in the theater was creating the large-scale puppets for the show (all the characters were portrayed by enormous puppets operated by actors within them). When the production moved from La MaMa to the Off-Broadway Pocket Theater it ran for 634 performances.
The work focuses on a robotic female Motel-Keeper, offering one of her rooms to a Woman and Man (both of whom are automatons), who go on to destroy the room, themselves and the Motel-Keeper. During the piece the Keeper's originally cajoling attempts to sell the would-be consumers on her tired room bloom into a maddening and manic offer of all the mass-manufactured crap that has for so long been generated by and for American consumers, and that serves as a metaphor for certain aspects American economics and politics. The short piece ends in a cacophony of destructive violence and gibberish, that also ends up revealing, quite literally, the emptiness behind the walls, inside the heads of the Man and Woman, and within the body of the Motel-Keeper. It was a piece that not only tapped into the growing political consciousness of the time at which it was written, but also served as a uniquely powerful demonstration of how that latent political violence could take shape in the theatrical space. It is often cited as one of the most successful realizations of Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty
a whole generation of New York artists who came to see it.
Given that history, it's hard to imagine recapturing the piece's original energy and impact. It's a deeply aggressive bit of theater. It's not the kind of thing you can really pull off with a smile and a bow, unless you're something akin to a young John Waters. You have to wonder who would really have the guts to do a full-on production of Motel
these days. Its message is one that is no less relevant in today's world than it was in the 60s, and the general lack of willingness to get ugly on contemporary stages (save in very pretty ways), could make it a powerful and jarring experience for even the most jaded downtown theater types.
The Theatre Research Ensemble chose to scale the piece down to marionette theater, all three characters operated by a single puppeteer, Alan Barnes Netherton. Unfortunately, because Netherton chose to position the Motel-Keeper puppet's head in front of his own, he was unable to see clearly what he was doing, and so unable to operate the Man and Woman characters with much deftness (the tiny lifelike movements of marionettes being the thing that makes them so compelling and magical to watch). He was also unable to see what he was doing as he tried to tear down the motel room. All of this drawing far too much attention to the mechanics of the thing and the problems the performer was having rather than to the meat of the writing and the intended chaos.
To be fair, the Theatre Research Ensemble is not really a theatrical production company. They focus on integrating meditation, education, therapy, and social activism with performance. And in that, they are representative of the wide swath of groups that come through the doors of La MaMa—a venue where building and nurturing communities remains as much a part of the mission as presenting important performance work. I've seen one of the most polished and virtuosic works I've seen in New York at La MaMa, and I've also seen work that's hard to endure. That's true of a lot of venues in this town; the spectrum is just a bit wider at La MaMa. You take your chances, but the shows almost always have low
ticket prices. And at the Club you can drink for cheap while you watch the show, which is not a bad deal, in my book.
As far as van Italie's Motel
, if you're interested in theater at all, you should buy or borrow from the library (or Google Books
) a copy of the book America Hurrah and Other Plays
, and read it, letting your imagination run wild as you go. And as far as La MaMa's 50th year, this season's Puppet Series
(through November 28) features work by a few masters of the form. Dario D'Ambrosi's Bong, Bong, Bong Against the Walls, Ting, Ting, Ting in Our Heads
looks particularly promising, as does Anna Skubik's Broken Nails
. Work by eminent puppeteers like Dan Hurlin, Theodora Skipitares, and Federico Restrepo is also on display at La MaMa's gallery space, La Galleria (through November 7).
(photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)