REVIEW: “THE AЯTS” at LaMaMa
“Art isn’t easy.”
Fresh off receiving the 2018 Regional Theatre Tony Award, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club—a venerable downtown, Off-Off-Broadway institution where experimental theatre has flourished for decades—launches its 57th season with “THE AЯTS”, a world-premiere collage-like piece of multimedia docu-drama recounting the contentious history and debate over public funding for the arts and humanities in the United States.
It comes as no surprise to any well-informed (or basically, sentient) practitioner or patron of the arts in America that the state of public support for artists and institutions is abysmal, especially when compared to the funding levels and structural supports devised in other industrialized nations.
Subsidization of cultural creation in America has been left to the marketplace, relegating a vital facet of national prestige, soft power, and personal sustenance to the gritty, raw, commercial battle for market victory, or else the whims of individual, charitable donors and organizations—a space involving its own precarious fight for scarce resources.
This is a choice, a matter of public policy the tension of which is woven into the tapestry of American history, from the creation of the Library of Congress to FDR’s New Deal programs and present-day budget battles. “THE AЯTS” focuses on the single greatest act of Congress in support of the arts: the arguments surrounding and passage of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, its meek implementation, and the raging debate still burning in its aftermath.
The stage of the Ellen Stewart Theatre—named for La MaMa’s founder, pioneering African American director Ellen Stewart (1919-2011) aka “Mama”—features a long table draped in a black felt cloth where five actors (Dracyn Blount, Alexander Chilton, Shayna Conde, Nick Daly, and Georgia Lee King) dressed in black and white largely sit and speak into table-top microphones. Between video projections on a giant scrim behind them, a seminal, all-American ritual plays out: the Congressional Hearing.
As conceived, written, and directed by Kevin Doyle—of the Brooklyn-based theatre company Sponsored By Nobody—with co-director Mike Carlsen, this is no ordinary hearing. With flights of Dada fancy, Mr. Doyle fashions a facially non-sensical symphony of parliamentary phrases and soundbites that collectively and simultaneously satirize and honor the democratic process with its genteel norms and Kafkaesque procedures. Then, debate among Senators is dramatized in a fast-paced, gripping segment, followed by a successful roll call vote set against imagery of the much-lamented destruction of the historic Penn Station in 1963.
We observe the art of public policy formation surrounding public support for art, and see the precious idealism expressed in Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI)’s legislation (seriously, read the thrilling declaration of purpose) besieged by the culture war that followed, one increasingly tribal and here, animalistic—inspired by the infamous 1989 floor speeches of Senators Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Al D’Amato (R-NY) vituperatively reacting to government funded works by artists Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.
This is capped by stark narration of President Trump’s stated intention to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (twice now saved by Congress)—the policy platform of a boorish president presiding over an administration wholly devoid of art and culture.
The line from “there” to “here” is clear. Just last month, former “Cosby Show” star Geoffrey Owens was publicly shamed, then defended, for working bagging groceries at Trader Joe’s. Actors, like so many artists, struggle to make ends meet in America, and halcyon federal programs created in 1965 continue to be gutted and demonized.
Through the rhythmic poetry and aural and visual multimedia mixing presentation of “THE AЯTS”, vital questions of art, society, democracy, and freedom are given space for meditation against the sweep of history and the crush of our zeitgeist—an experience that is alternatively rousing, informative, and depressing. Like most works about the American experience, the limitless potential we possess clashes with the sad reality of its oft-unfulfilled promise.
Stephen Sondheim summed it up best in “Putting it Together”: “advancing art is easy, financing it is not.”
Bottom Line: “THE AЯTS” at La MaMa is a stirring world-premiere collage-like piece of multimedia docu-drama recounting the contentious history and debate over public funding for the arts and humanities in the United States. Rousing, informative, and depressing, this is an important piece of argumentative, documentary theatre for these weary times.
Ellen Stewart Theatre
La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
66 East 4th Street
New York, NY 10003
Running Time: 85 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: September 16, 2018
Final Performance: September 30, 2018