Clips of the 1962 television special A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy are always enjoyable but those aren’t enough to redeem the tedious performance piece, THE AЯTS. It’s chiefly a historical treatment of the United States Congress’ divisive debates about the creation of The National Endowment for the Arts in the 1960’s.
The Andersonville Trial, Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been and The Biko Inquest are just a few notable plays that were based on hearings or courtroom testimony. Peter Stone’s monumental book for the musical 1776 managed to achieve suspense as to whether The Declaration of Independence would pass. It is certainly possible to create theatrical works out of historical records.
Conceived and written by Kevin Doyle, THE AЯTS offers sophomoric antics that are a virtual parody of performance art techniques. There’s a lot of buzzers à la Richard Foreman. The show is a presentation of Sponsored By Nobody, “an international theatre company in search of a blue-collar avant-garde” that creates interdisciplinary works of “abrasive theatre.”
The cast of five sits at a long conference table with microphones facing the audience. In back of them is large screen for projections. Before the show starts, bullet point facts about the history of the arts funding in the U.S. are shown; later there are film clips that include Elizabeth Taylor and Burton in The V.I.P.s, Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy, JFK and guests on a yacht and television news footage.
The actors portray unnamed Congress members debating and interacting with the projections. They repeat lines over and over in attempt to be funny, gesticulate, speak in deadpan or exaggerated tones, babble catchphrases from old television commercials and dance to pop songs of the era. Lillian Gish who testified before the committee is played by a man in a dress. Heston is also represented in all his stentorian glory.
As in 1776, things get compelling when The Senate votes on the bill. Otherwise, it’s a pretty tiresome affair. The show jumps ahead to the 1980’s with the controversies over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Robert Mapplethorpe’s provocative photographs. This is handled by illustrative images, the cast performing wan Paul Taylor-style movements and clips of Jesse Helms, Al D’Amato and Newt Gingrich’s apoplectic rants.
There is no explanatory background imparted about these situations so one would have to be already familiar with the details to comprehend this portion. There’s a video sequence of contemporary teenagers reciting provisions of the NEA’s charter and images of President Donald Trump. We learn how the institution has been threatened with abolishment and its diminished budget as THE AЯTS sputters out after 80 minutes.
Appropriately suited up, the company of Dracyn Blount, Alexander Chilton, Shayna Conde, Nick Daly and Georgia Lee King all exhibit glimmers of actual talent amidst their stylized characterizations.
Mr. Doyle and co-director Mike Carlsen demonstrate a facility for the visual with their command of stagecraft. Rob Lariviere’s accomplished lighting design and composer Jesse Galaznik’s beating original score contributes vigor.
THE AЯTS’ strident flippancy mars its take on an interesting subject that has resonance today.
THE AЯTS (through September 30, 2018)
Sponsored By Nobody
Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa, 66 East 4 Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.sponsoredbynobody.com
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission