At the start, we watch the watchers: five 20-somethings who form a passive semicircle around a television set, while a montage of war-era video images cascades on the wall behind them. Ari Fleischer pontificates briefly at a White House press conference, before Donald Rumsfeld reassures everyone that more bombs will fall after the initial wave that hit Baghdad in March of this year.
After that, the banality of the networks' war coverage is replicated on the home front: A local news anchor earnestly asks a field correspondent, "Were there any visible signs of patriotism at Camp Lejeune today?" before we view footage of something called "The NBC 17 War Room."
It is the way we were, just three short months ago, and director Robert Stromberg seems determined not to let us forget it in Mission Accomplished: Proud Americans in a Time of War. It's a volatile--and uneven--mix of collaborative theater, music, dance and visual art. It's also one where video too often trumps the other elements.
I hadn't previously seen underground filmmaker Edo's brief State of the Union ... Not Good, which was screened in its entirety in one section at mid-show. This jolting remix of George Bush's January 2003 address to the nation (available online at
www.fuckitall.com/bsh) seamlessly splices different parts of the speech together, to reveal the artist's interpretation of the president's true agenda. As a result, we see Bush admit, "We have a great opportunity during this time of war to lead the world toward suicide and murder." Before that, he's heard to confess, "We can be summed up in one word: Evil." The standing ovations these and other lines receive in the film are as surreal and chilling as the words themselves.
Before Not Good, filmmaker Aaron Valdez reduces Bush's performance in the same address to a revealing series of nervously licked lips and simpering facial expressions, in States of the Union (also online, at www.valdezfilm.com/videostates.htm).
In short, both are impressive works of socio-political critique, and as an audience, we're undeniably richer for having seen them. But their presence in Mission Accomplished tends to underline the lack of similar focus and economy in the live sections of the show.
There's no shortage of interesting ideas in this 70-minute work. After a school-age rendition of "My Country, Tis of Thee," the crew on-stage mutters the phrase "let freedom ring," over and over, as if it were a self-reminder about an important task left to be done. Elsewhere, a row of people polish red apples with an American flag before taking a single bite--and then throwing the rest in a trashcan.
In another sequence, a group reading the local papers turns the stage into a roiling wasteland of shredded newsprint and duct tape. En route, the performers use the paper at points as pompoms, insufficient clothing and shelter, as Stromberg and Jason Klarl's videography and Alex Kostelnik and Timothy Brooks's soundscape adds to the storm of flying words on stage.
Olynda Stewart's overtly slow and meditative solo movement against all this is the only anchor in this mid-show maelstrom. When that storm abruptly stops, the brilliantly extended stillness, darkness and silence thereafter provides a necessary refuge from all that's come before.
A recited list of uniquely American things (including obesity, bluegrass and "disposable everything") is added to by tape-recorded contributions from the audience as they enter the theater. Before they've even bought their ticket, each member's already been asked for their first and last name, their cell phone number--and whether they're "pro or anti." Significantly, the questioner never identifies what the audience member is for or against.
An interview video with two local homebuilders also plays with our expectations. One of the men says, "I ain't worried about Kuwait. I'm worried about the crackhead around the corner." When asked who was responsible for the Sept. 11 atrocity, he says there was probably "Iraqis in the woodpile." But then the two say the bombing was "reactionary" and not pre-emptive. One says "I can't agree with bombing someone because they might bomb us."
Art by committee frequently turns out less than the sum of its parts. Too often here, I don't sense a single, clear artistic vision in the uncredited choreography. Ensemble movement basically seems a collection of haphazard gestures that doesn't build or significantly gel, even with the participation of dancer/choreographers Susan Quinn and Amanda Abrams on stage.
Problematic writing and editing result in sequences that drag on well beyond their obvious point, and overreliance on projected video distracts us. The largest moving image on stage will always pull focus in a performance. Too often here it's on TV.
This month has seen an artistic work of conscience by Maguy Marin at ADF and a Black Playwrights Festival in Carrboro. In both venues, artists responded to real injustice with real imagination. In both, we learned that artists can treat issues of concern with subtlety, metaphor and understatement.
We also learned that when they do, they sometimes get much further doing so than with what might be termed "the piñata approach."
It's a lesson local artists need to learn as well. This group of "proud Americans" displays considerable imagination and courage. But in terms of meaningful protest art, this is one mission that has clearly just begun. Few missions are more needed in this time. I hope this group continues with this one.