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Robert and the Dawn

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 16, 2005

Robert and the Dawn, the new play by Eric Michael Kochmer at Feed the Herd's Stampede Festival, is underground theatre at its grungiest—in a very good way. It's subversiveness is at once raw and grainy and over-the-top; seeing it in the quasi-club venue at CB's Gallery that Stampede is calling home this year feels like what I imagine it would have felt to see banned theatre in a Berlin cabaret in the waning days of Weimar Germany. It's the second genuinely dangerous play I've seen this month (the other is Brian Dykstra's Hiding Behind Comets). It's a little rough around the edges and could probably lose 10 minutes or so, but it's jolting and provocative work, the kind that gets under the craw and sticks to the brain for days and days.

Here's why: Robert and the Dawn, almost three plays in one, tells three stories simultaneously in three different theatrical styles. The first is a Bunraku puppet allegory in which a scary red-state grandmother shows her grandkids an educational film. The second is a taut, faux-suspense thriller acted live in black & white—the film—in which an eerily placid automaton named Robert assassinates a man and woman on the orders of the President. The third is an antic vaudeville, performed all over the house, in which Robert's dad, a washed-up musical comedy performer (think Arthur Miller's Willy Loman by way of John Osborne's Entertainer, brought up to date), illustrates the rot at the root of the American Dream that made Robert the government bureaucrat/assassin possible.

I hope I've captured in that paragraph the sweep, ambition, scope, and startling juxtapositions that make Robert and the Dawn at once so interesting, so strange, and so terrifying. Playwright Kochmer and his close collaborator, director Emanuel Bocchieri, have created something very audacious here and they haven't let resource or spatial limitations hinder their vision; indeed, they're inspired by them, and the deliberate shabbiness of the production's decor and the enforced intimacy of the tiny playing area finally all inform the themes of the finished piece. Robert is political performance art extravaganza for the Bush Era; God bless Kochmer and Bocchieri and the rest of the Herd for pulling it off and for making it feel as edgy and necessary as it does.

Anchoring the proceedings with splendid assurance is Bill Weeden as Robert's father, billed in the program as Clown. Dressed in a shaggy vaudevillian's suit and armed with a rifle that he wields like a hoofer's cane, he sings, dances, and jokes with the audience as he tells the story of his rise and fall, a victim of capitalism and Reaganomics and a dad who withheld love from his son until it was too late. Weeden is hilarious and heartbreaking as he capers about the theatre, as likely to break into a new number as to threaten suicide with each passing moment.

The live sci-fi "movie," played out in a rear corner with darkly comic panache, is enacted by Kevin Kaine and Wendy Baron as the married couple in trouble, and Matthew Hanley in a brilliantly conceived turn as Robert. Hanley's performance—reminiscent of the film The Matrix, I am told—deftly dances across the line between robotics and humanity: is Robert programmed (or brainwashed), or has he just lost the capacity to actually feel things? We're never quite sure.

Puppeteers Olivia Rasini and Deborah Miller animate the two young children, rendered here evocatively in wood, who must receive tough love from Dolores McDougal's chirpy grandmother. This segment of Robert and the Dawn comes off less successfully than the other two, possibly because McDougal seems too "nice" in the role, and possibly also because the writing here is less subtle than elsewhere. But it brings the play together in a satisfying way: when we figure out what the children are being made to watch, the sinister implications are pretty chilling.

The whole show is synchronized to a terrific jazzy, noirish score by Rob Fellman, which is performed superbly by a four-man band led by Ricardo Ortiz (guitar) and featuring Fellman (keyboards/bass) and Jesse Wallace and Matt Brundrett (drums/percussion).

This isn't finely tuned, highly polished, sparkly shiny theatre; this is rough, tough stuff where the seams sometimes still show and the splinters are not yet sanded away. It demands that you join it as a fellow conspirator against everything that's tried-and-true in our culture, which I think is a grand thing. It's not for everyone. I loved it.