Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel is host to an appealing, little buffet of little arts experiences. Somewhere beyond the large horse sculpture inhabiting the lobby, the tiny gallery and the Poet Phone (a classy little phone featuring recordings of Timothy Kloss, Matt Cook and more) there rest a tiny, little 90-seat black box theatre. The Saint Kate artists in residence company ARCo introduces itself late this summer with a production of America Hurrah—a program of three shorts from playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie. Originally written for small crowds in New York during the Vietnam Era, the program is a look back at a tumultuous era in the nation’s history that echoes universals that continue to beat through the pulse of contemporary cultural consciousness.
The opening short is “Job Interview.” It’s a rhythmic abstraction of human interaction that opens with a deconstructed cascade of job interview dialogues before melting and fusing into a series of smaller narratives the illustrate the absurd difficulties of human connection. As this is also the first short on the inaugural ARCo show, it also serves as an opportunity to meet the ensemble that will be working out of the space. It’s a strong group of young performers led by the show’s director Nancy Kresin. The characters present in the short were a rage from Ian Tully’s polished, professional bank president to Tim Gutknecht’s earthy house painter to Gabriella Ashlin’s somewhat abrasive floor washer. Perhaps the single most disturbing character in the set had Seth Hale pouring himself through the shiny veneer of an impersonal politician being rapidly pursued by the rest of the cast. Susie Duecker is particularly engaging as a woman at a party reaching out in an apparent attempt to try to make sense of something horrific. She and a few others look to engage directly with audience in the front row.
After the first intermission, Duecker returns as a woman working a at a TV station. She and her co-workers (played by JJ Gatesman and Ian Tully) are contrasted against the artificiality of the TV programming they are broadcasting. The contrast blurs between reality and the television which mocks it. The specifics of the TV medium as they have evolved over the course of the past half century make “TV” the most dated of the three shorts, but the questions of the relationship between pop art drama and the reality of human drama on this side of the TV remain captivating in a fascinating piece of drama.
The short that closes the show (“Hotel”) might have been a bit more ambitious a project to tackle on a small budget than the other two. Emily Elliott and Rachel Meldman we’re nevertheless dynamically destructive in masks as a man and a woman destroying a hotel room while the voice of Gabriella Ashlin could be heard delivering a monologue about a hooked rugs and other fine amenities in a hotel on Route 666. Eliot and Meldman are graceful and breathtaking in a ’60s proto-punk dance destruction piece. The problem with the staging was that everything onstage LOOKED like it was made to be destroyed. In a way the might say something about the disposable nature of a landscape strung together with temporary housing for populations in transit, but if Meldman and Elliot aren’t destroying something that appears to have been built to stand the test of time, the destruction of the props doesn’t carry the impact that it could have otherwise had. The energy that Meldman and Elliott were able to bring to the piece was strong enough to overcome props and scenery. There’s kind of power in seeing people in mask and costume making a mess. It’s a strong visceral statement on which to end ARCo’s debut show.
ARCo Ensemble’s production of America Hurrah runs through August 24th at Saint Kate--The Arts Hotel on 139 East Kilbourn. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook Events page.