The Wonders of Taylor Mac

In Tisch Theatre on April 25, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Mention the name Taylor Mac and I’m there.  After experiencing his five-hour extravaganza The Lily’s Revenge this fall, I have developed a minor (healthy) obsession with the creative genius.  The Lily’s Revenge epitomized innovation at its best—it defied theatrical convention with its playful, rebellious attitude (with intermission activities including disco dancing in the dressing room—traditionally forbidden territory for audience members), while still maintaining a meaningful sense of purpose.  Though the show reveled in outrageous frivolity, its core message of universal love and acceptance remained palpable, even poignant.  Mac’s theatre may be bizarre, but the intention and significance behind his work makes it brilliantly innovative—not just shock value “experimental theatre.”

So the moment I heard that Mac and his team of masterminds were developing a play at my studio, Tisch’s Experimental Theatre Wing, I was immediately psyched.  This new piece, titled Walk Across America for Mother Earth, chronicles the group of hippie activists and societal misfits (along with Mac himself) who trekked across the country in 1992, protesting the government’s unjust seizure of Shoshone territory to convert it into the Nevada Nuclear Test Site.  The workshop performed at ETW was a mockup of sketches, ideas, and songs for the official opening at La Mama next year, in collaboration with The Talking Band.

In the distinct, Taylor Mac vernacular of crafty, home-made props and unabashed camp, Walk delivered the perfect proportions of outrageous entertainment and social activism.  Director Paul Zimet of The Talking Band and composer Ellen Maddow completed the trinity of creative brilliance, using mainly sound and movement to vivify the Walk before our eyes—with no dirty detail disregarded.  From an unfortunate outbreak of crabs to a community infliction with dysentery (artfully recreated with an ensemble beat box of noises that accompany such digestive woe), the audience saw the full scope of the journey.  One memorable sequence depicted that odd menstrual phenomenon that occurs when women have spent an extended period of time together (apologies for the pun).  While all walking in place, one woman began enacting the various emotional, physical, and hormonal stages of that time of the month—from a brief crying fit to uncontrollable horniness.  More women joined in after each “cycle” of choreography until finally all the female members of the community were uterinely synchronized.

Though I usually prefer not to see the body’s less attractive functions manifested on stage, Zimet and Mac approached them in such a creative way that it detracted from the gross factor (if only a little).  Their expressionistic use of sound and movement made it elevated potty humor, not just a cheap fart joke.

What I love about Taylor Mac is that he fully acknowledges, and even flaunts the fact that his over-the-top theatre is a decidedly acquired taste—a conservative, highly Christian theatrical traditionalist, for instance, would probably cry blasphemy upon seeing his work and then slip into a glitter-induced coma.  But from what I have seen, this is what his work is about—redrawing the boundaries of theatre with outrageous innovation and wit, all the while conveying a significant message.

Walk was no different, as Mac’s promotion for social justice and community shone clearly through the glitz and gaiety. Though at times the play’s activist message can take form in a ranting monologue, like an explosion of long-pent-up opinions that spew into the audience, the way Mac articulates his ideas makes a profound impact.  Such moments often arise in rare times of stillness in the play, where one can just listen to the actor speak Mac’s compelling words.  The final monologue of the play is especially effective, and I don’t feel like I would be spoiling anything by talking about it seeing as the Nevada Nuclear Test Site is still active.  It was a “me against the bullies” type speech, both representing the walk’s participants in their personal lives as well as an implicit governmental reference.  I know that verbal attacks on the government can easily induce eye rolling and cuticle examining—I have brushed off many an activist tirade myself.  But Mac’s work is different.  He has artfully mastered the balance between frivolity and gravity, steering clear of didacticism as his passionate speeches, whether sarcastic or earnest, deliver a grounding contrast to the play’s overall bizarreness.  The effect is absolutely inspiring, and I have not yet left a Taylor Mac piece feeling as though I have just been bludgeoned with liberal idealism.  In fact, I usually leave in the best mood I have had in weeks.

Walk Across America for Mother Earth is another beautiful example of Taylor Mac’s genius, and I cannot wait to see the fully developed production.


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