Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Song of Yourselves

On May 24 and 25, John Hogan presented Song of Yourselves at Automata. Described as "an Irish Wake of sorts for American Exceptionalism," it featured creative re-contextualizations of right-wing speeches, Allen Ginsberg/Lenny Bruce/Johanna Went-style performances, and audience karaoke.

Hogan's performance seemed to border on extremely relaxed and extremely nervous, maintaining an informal air throughout the piece. Brian Ramisch helped him with musical accompaniment and moral support, and the pair backed the performances with acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, cassette recordings of noisy guitar feedback, and a few other implements.

A cutout Walt Whitman headshot overlooked the proceedings, adorned by decorative American flags, as Hogan read an excerpt from Leaves of Grass. Ann Romney's speech at the 2012 RNC was transformed into a Woody Guthrie-esque folk song - showcasing what scripted political rhetoric has learned from folk music rabble rousers (and vice-versa).

Clint Eastwood's infamous empty chair speech was recited while wearing a cutout Eastwood mask. This happened in real-time as Hogan listened to Eastwood's speech on headphones (gleaning the timing from the original), including all um's, er's, and awkward pauses. As Hogan gesticulated emphatically, the awkward moments were made all the more potent by the intimacy of the space.

Though these famous speeches were great to hear in their re-contextualized forms, the original texts in the piece (or ones I didn't recognize) were the most interesting. Beat-inspired sardonic memoirs of suburban malaise, they presented a reflective further dissemination of Whitman.

Transitions from one scene to the next were facilitated by audience karaoke, which people could sign up for when they picked up their ticket before the show. The karaoke was run from a laptop on stage, with the lyrics projected on the side wall. A limited selection of "Contextually Appropriate Pop Songs" were offered, including all-American fare such as Dancing in the DarkSolitary Man, or Welcome to the Jungle. Mere set change slight-of-hand, or a much deeper commentary on the commercial compartmentalization of Whitman's barbaric yawp? You decide.

Considering some Republicans' inability to fathom having lost the 2012 presidential election, I'd think that many would find these re-framed campaign speeches funny if not enlightening. Even if you're not as staunchly liberal as one might assume an audience at an experimental puppet theater would be, Song of Yourselves is a moving poetic rendering of this transitional period for the American Man.

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