A collage of America today, inspired by Norman Rockwell and contemporary installation artist Jason Rhoades, Charles Mee’s play juxtaposes the Fifties and the present, red states and blue, where we grew up and where we live now—a piece that is, like America, permanently under construction.
“A witty, sometimes mystifying, often riveting mishmash of classic Americana and anarchic performance art.” —Time
Note about process:
Ask him, and Charles Mee will set the record straight: there’s no such thing as an original play. He means it. Whether he’s adapting the Greeks or crafting a world premiere, Mee is quick to point out that everything “new” is actually recycled. Being an artist, any kind of artist, means constantly reaching into the past to gather and cull from its ideas and traditions, and then reshaping those materials to forge something new. For Mee this concept of remaking does more than describe the creative work of an artist. It’s a model for how history moves and what it means to be a human being. It informs his dramaturgy, the way he puts his plays together. And, at the risk of being overly reductive, it’s the subject of his new play. A collage of images and music, Thanksgiving dinners and Bing Crosby, Under Construction offers a vision of America as a nation that is constantly reinventing itself, engaged in a never-ending process of becoming.
The play, written in 2004, was inspired by two specific experiences. The first was a trip that summer to the Avignon Theatre Festival in France, which immersed Mee in dance theatre. “The dramaturgical structure of dance is very different from that of theatre,” he explains. “Most plays have a narrative that knits them together. Dance often just announces a theme, and then you get airs and variations on that theme.” The second was the 2004 presidential election. “The aesthetics of new, cutting-edge, post-colonial, post-imperial and thriving European theatre ran into the re-election of George W. Bush. I wrote Under Construction to console myself, to remind myself that this was not the final act of modern American history, not the end of the story, not the last word of American politics. No, I told myself: this country is forever under construction.”
Under Construction is the third in a collection of four projects inspired by American artists. In bobrauschenbergamerica, Mee took a look at the world through the eyes of the visionary abstract expressionist Robert Rauschenberg. In Hotel Cassiopeia, he dove into the mind of Joseph Cornell, who made beautiful boxed assemblages with found objects. For Under Construction, Mee takes his inspiration from two figures: the 20th-century painter Norman Rockwell and the contemporary installation artist Jason Rhoades.
Neither Rockwell nor Rhoades is a character in the piece. Instead, Mee uses their art and utterly opposed sensibilities as a scaffold or jumping-off point—a way to talk about America. Rockwell is arguably the country’s best-known artist. His images of small-town life graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post for more than four decades. For many, his illustrations now conjure thoughts of an America that was simpler and more innocent than the one we inhabit today (an America that, perhaps, never existed). Jason Rhoades fills rooms to bursting with objects and light. His installation art is huge and messy; non-representational but highly evocative; unafraid to offend, and impossible to ignore. As Mee imagines them onstage, Rockwell’s and Rhoades’s artistic sensibilities do more than simply collide or bounce off each other or exist together in tension. The historical move from Rockwell to Rhoades represents progress toward a more honest cultural dialogue about who we are, how we live and what we want.
“Under Construction really is kind of America then and now,” says Mee. “In the course of the piece you move from something that’s kind of then to something that’s kind of now.” Of course, when he composed his first draft back in 2004, Mee had no idea when now might be—when his play would be produced, or in what political climate. So it’s a matter of accident that a work so concerned with questions of history and identity comes before its first audience at this liminal moment in our national history, a moment when we find ourselves engaged in a complex and robust conversation about who we are and who we might become. In a collage that interweaves family dinners and first dates with raucous dancing and meditations on recent innovations in strap-on technology, Mee, Bogart and SITI offer a dynamic exploration of the place we live and the journey we’re taking together, through our own small lives and the sweep of time.
“What the phenomenal SITI Company does with Mee’s script, under the direction of Anne Bogart, becomes high-wire performance art with a sense of humor. ‘Under Construction’ is a freaky, wondrous, dance-inducing piece…” —Courier-Journal
“A provocative and sometimes discomfitingly confrontational piece that dissects ever-evolving American values.” —The Miami Herald