UH Production Examines New Vision of U.S.

Artist Bob Rauschenberg presented new ways of looking at life, the world and the United States through groundbreaking collages - "Combines" - that incorporated everyday objects and assorted images of people, places and things. Random at times, and deliberate at others, each collection of items told a host of stories within a single canvas.

Thanks to playwright Charles L. Mee, the artist's spirited, yet unconventional, vision was transplanted to a theater setting by New York's SITI Company in "bobrauschenbergamerica" in 2001. Soon, Houstonians will have the opportunity to experience this unique stage production when it is presented by the University of Houston's School of Theatre & Dance.

Directed by J. Ed. Araiza, "bobrauschenbergamerica" will be performed at 8 p.m., Feb. 20, 21, 26, 27, 28 and at 2 p.m., Feb. 22 and March 1 in the Wortham Theatre (in the Mitchell Center for the Arts building).

Araiza is quite familiar with the play, as he was one of the original cast members who brought the production to life.

"I can't think of a better time or a better place to stage this play," Araiza said. "It's an ensemble piece about community and what it means to be an American. Our country has a new president, so these themes are extremely relevant to audiences right now."

Like Rauschenberg's "Combines", the play offers a collection of characters (a truck driver, girl on skates, a pizza guy, a homeless man), scenes and dialogues set against an American landscape. There is no central plot, but rather disparate, unsystematic segments that provoke questions of life, country and culture.

"Our task is not only to ask these questions," Araiza said. "We also have to get the audience to listen to them and really think about them."

Araiza plans not only to ask hard questions from Houston audiences, but to create a version of this play that comes across as familiar. A native Texan, the director wants to explore the meaning of being an American, but wants to do so with Lone Star flair.

"Originally, SITI did this play in a much smaller space. UH's Wortham Theatre, however, is very large, so we're putting on a Texas-sized production," he said. "This version of the play will be more Texas-centric, and that makes sense. I'm from San Antonio. Bob Rauschenberg was from Port Arthur. Most of our cast and crew are from Texas.  Our Texan cast will take an intimate production like this and try to open it up."

Mee and SITI premiered "bobrauschenbergamerica" at the 2001 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky. Since its debut, the play has been lauded by critics and become wildly popular among audiences. In the original production, Araiza portrayed Becker, the derelict.

In addition to "bobrauschenbergamerica," Araiza has appeared in numerous SITI productions, including "Hotel Cassiopeia," "Midsummer Night's Dream," "Culture of Desire" and "War of the Worlds."  His original works "Medeastories" and "C/O" have been performed in Austin. He has conducted workshops and taught at universities and theatres all over the world. In addition to SITI Company, he is a member of the Dramatist Guild, Austin Script Works and NoPE. He was previously a member of El Teatro De La Esperanza.

Other plays written by Mee include "Wintertime," "Belle Epoque," "Vienna: Lusthaus," "Snow in June," "A Perfect Wedding" and "Limonade tous les Jours." He also has composed other works inspired by Greek plays: "Big Love," "True Love," "Orestes 2.0," "Trojan Women: A Love Story" and others. Mee's plays have been performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, American Repertory Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, the Public Theatre, Lincoln Center, the Humana Festival, Steppenwolf, and a host of international theaters. He is a two-time OBIE Award winner and is the recipient of the lifetime achievement award in drama from the American Academy of Arts. His work is made possible by the support of Jeanne Donovan Fisher and Richard B. Fisher.

As an artist, Rauschenberg came to prominence through experimenting with his groundbreaking "Combines" of the 1950s. Such pieces use elements of painting, sculpture, photography and printmaking. A pop culture enthusiast, Rauschenberg employed a less angst-ridden approach to artwork than many of the era's abstract expressionists. "Monogram" is among his more prolific works featuring such materials as a tennis ball, angora coat, paint, a police barrier and a shoe heel. Rauschenberg also is noted for his monochromatic "White Paintings" and "Black Paintings." In 1983, he received a Grammy Award for his album cover design for Talking Heads' "Speaking in Tongues" album. The artist died in 2008 at age 82 as a result of heart failure.  

The UH School of Theatre & Dance offers bachelor's and master's degrees in theater and teacher certifications in dance. Its graduate program consists of a master of arts in theater and masters of fine arts in theater with specializations in acting, directing and design. Each fall and spring, the school produces five plays performed in the Wortham Theatre and the Jose Quintero Theatre, two dance concerts, four graduate directing projects, one Theatre for Young Audiences play and the Houston Shakespeare Festival each summer. The school has benefitted from notable star faculty such as Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson, Sir Peter Hall and Jose Quintero. Among current faculty are Tony Award-winning playwright Mark Medoff, Tony Award-winning producer Stuart Ostrow, and Broadway dramaturg Mark Bly.

For details on UH's School of Theatre & Dance, visit www.theatredance.uh.edu.  

About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas' premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 35,000 students.