Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of iconoclast Taylor Mac is that as playwright, actor, singer-songwriter, performance artist, director and producer, he’s lived an audacious professional life seemingly on his own terms. Every creative effort stimulates, many unnerve, some may shock.
During intermissions of his The Lily’s Revenge: A Flowergory Manifold at HERE in 2009, one could page through books that had been inspirational in its genesis. These included theology, psychology, philosophy, and literature. I have no doubt they were not just props.
As an excellent actor in another playwright’s work (The Good Person of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht), Mac was a revelation to those who only new “judy” (his choice of gender pronoun) as the vocalist/historian outrageously dressed by longtime collaborator Machine Dazzle. In Gary, the artist pushes the envelope yet again manifesting his daring, ultimately very smart concept with Grand-Guignol, farce, vaudeville, sex, and Shakespearean dialogue.
If this intrigues, you have to just let it wash over you, unselfconscious about possibly laughing at the silly and prurient, patient through over loquacious passages, occasionally wincing, admiring the brains, craft, and chutzpah.
WHOMP! Choral, horns, drums – Shakespearean scoring on steroids. Carol -Cordelia in Titus Andronicus (Julie White) – stumbles onstage, dazed and rhyming in iambic pentameter. Suddenly her neck spurts blood from successive wounds. I mean spurts, it covers distance. She looks deliciously baffled. The dress is splashed. We’re told to expect savagery and gore. If this is news to anyone unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s bloody revenge tragedy, or reviews of this play, they’re getting an inkling now. Exit Carol.
Yes there are bodies, body parts, blood, and entrails but the brilliant Santo Loquasto has built them of cloth like giant rag dolls diminishing the ech factor. When a head falls off, ooze from the neck appears as silken steamers. Titus’ banquet room, haphazardly piled almost to its ceiling with filthy corpses – some wearing armor, some fully exposed (women and children are discretely covered), must be the most fun the Scenic Designer has had in years. Nor are the theater’s faux proscenium or the chamber itself slouches of late Elizabethan décor.
Enter Gary (Nathan Lane), an everyman clown of “low antics” who juggles pigeons in the street. (The birds become deft humorous grist.) Having found himself talking his way out of a noose by volunteering to clean up the carnage, he’s had a eureka moment. This new job as a “maid” is a mere stepping stone for the suddenly ambitious busker. Gary now aspires to become a fool, “one of those blokes who changes the mind of emperors.” This is the essence of his namesake play.
“Mum always said start at the top and work your way down,” he says scaling the pile, intermittently apologizing to those on whom he steps. Enter Janice (Kristine Nielsen) with a wheelbarrow of additional remains. “Don’t mind me, I’ll get the door myself,” she cracks pugnaciously. He’s all (Cockney) speech, part rhyming couplets; she’s all facial expression.
Janice is as matter-of-fact about handling the dead as Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett. “First things first, you gotta separate accessories from people.” She strips a cadaver. “Then jiggle’m about a bit to get rid of any excess gas.” Janice pokes, pummels, and lifts limbs evoking a kind or variegated fart melody. “Then you make a small cut under the navel and insert a tube into the abdomen. It takes about thirty pumps to empty it.” (The machine is perfect.) Last come tubes for blood and feces “Don’t confuse them!”
Turning to count the bodies, Gary is aghast. “Did you ever think you don’t wanna do the job you’re assigned…that you’re maybe not living your best life?” He nonetheless selects one only to have an errant penis rise and squirt. The play is crammed with sight gags, many unabashedly scatalogical, all of which Lane handles with impeccable timing. “So maybe not the best day ever anymore.”
Carol emerges from the sprawling heap surprisingly not dead after having her throat cut, under the justifiable impression she’s in Hell or a way station en route. The midwife delivered a bastard negro child to the empress (as in Shakespeare’s play) and was dispatched to insure silence. That she didn’t save the baby is unbearable.
The two lower class maids vie for her cooperation – Janice to get the job done, Gary to create his answer to chaos and comment on the situation, an extravagant performance “fooling” (think Hellzapoppin’ with corpses) for the court when they enter expecting a clean chamber in the morning. Arguments skewer their own people and ruling class equally.
Never one to back down from the excessive, Nathan Lane has this one by its sizable, stuffed cahones. Every signature move and expression you’ve ever seen plus a gut bucket more mercurially flow. That Lane’s shenanigans weigh in with gravity, both underlying and revealed, make Gary sympathetic and the play larger than the sum of its parts.
Kristine Nielsen holds freezes and double takes seconds too long. Gleeful eruptions work better; more serious moments shine.
Julie White has made clear decisions about Carol which reflect a whole personage in contrast to her foils. Spending the play in light stupefaction, she capably handles walking the line between drollery and purpose. That White grates her voice in response to wounds is adroit.
Also featuring Collin Baja, Tom Berklund, Tislarm Bouie, Mark Junek, and Matty Oaks as Dead Romans
Director George C. Wolfe must’ve had a splendid time with the opportunity to knit together half a dozen genres flexing his slapstick, dramatic, and Elizabethan muscles. Visuals are inspired.
Who but our prince of clowns, Bill Irwin, could’ve concocted movement in the face of this plot and set with grace, style and pathos that fits the bravura production with inimitable skill?
Ann Roth’s Costumes, torn and disheveled, are wonderfully artful in detail, texture, and color. Gary has a Harpo horn! Luc Verschueren for Campbell Young Associates Wig Design is period etching worthy. Make-up (no credit?) is superb.
Lighting by the estimable Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Music by Danny Elfman, and Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier are all top notch.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Opening: Nathan Lane (Gary)