The 2018 Tony Award-winning theater La Mama opens its fall season with the world premiere of THE AЯTS, a new docu-drama about the history of public arts funding in the US.
As the audience waits for the play to begin, historical blurbs scroll down the large screen at the back of the stage, documenting America’s past attempts and failures to establish artistic funding. Throughout, a lone actor tweets from one of the five chairs and microphones. The remaining actors eventually file in, greeting each other and warming up for their performances as the narrator good-naturedly thanks the audience for paying the price of admission and for its attendance “in a time of so much loss”. The actors assume their seats at the congressional table and the play commences.
In the next 80 minutes, bits and pieces of congressional hearings emerge, revealing both the struggle and eventual success of the establishment of the National Endowment of the Arts in the 1960’s, as well as the upheaval and controversy it faced in 1989 when the infamous “Piss Christ” photograph by Catholic artist Andres Serrano and several graphic Robert Mapplethorpe came to the attention of conservative congressmen.
These loosely-reenacted congressional hearings are surrounded in much larger part by what creator, writer and co-director Kevin Doyle called “collages” in the talkback after the show. Much in the way that dance and music tell a story without dialog, these collages use disconnected words and phrases, sounds and light to barrage the audience’s senses, story-telling in a non-intellectual way. These segments are akin to dream sequences, sometimes bewildering, often powerful and always evocative, and the audience experiences these moments as though watching an absurd play or looking at a piece of abstract art, feeling their effects but patiently waiting for something to make sense.
The most powerful of these montages occurs at what feels like the pivotal moment of the piece, where the “Piss Christ” is projected on the back screen while the most controversial Mapplethorpe images flash before the audience and the actors descend into mayhem. Like the other collages, this one seems to go on for too long without any shape or arc.
At the play’s end, one’s immediate impression is that they’ve just read the densest of poems without understanding much of what they read, yet on continued reflection the purpose and message of the play floats to the surface and becomes crystal clear. Art on the page as well as on the stage.
THE AЯTS is a compelling, enlightening, distinctive piece of theater and worth attending.
“We need the enchantment of art, its creative illumination, to counteract the pushbutton emptiness of our mechanical life.” – Kevin Doyle, THE AЯTS
THE AЯTS plays Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., with its final performance scheduled for September 30, 2018. For tickets, visit lamama.org, or call OvationTix at 212-352-3101.