MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

American History, Taylor Mac Style

Taylor Mac

Taylor Mac

The performance phenomenon known as Taylor Mac has been riding a wave of more mainstream success of late.

A few seasons ago he was a smash in a remarkable production of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan by the Foundry Theatre at the the New York Public Theatre (playing both Shen Te and Shui Ta). The run of Mac’s wild new play Hir at New York City’s Playwrights Horizons was recently extended — yikes, recognition by the global capitalist economy! — and Hir is showing up on several best-of-the-year lists. (The title of this darkly absurd comedy about a dysfunctional, moving-to-postgender family conflates “his” and “her,” though Mac’s own gender pronoun of preference rejects both of these in favor of the delightfully befuddling “judy.”)

And Mac is heading into 2016 with his most-ambitious project ever: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (still in progress), which will eventually comprise 24 concerts, each devoted to one of the 24 decades of the history of the United States (from 1776 through 2016).

Ultimately Mac plans to stitch these programs together into a single blow-out extravaganza of three acts, eight hours each, spread over a continuous 24 hours. Food and a medical tent are being promised; bring-your-own bedding is encouraged; communities will be forged.

You can sample an excerpt from the intended magnum opus in this weekend’s show at On the Boards, where Mac is making his belated debut.

At the opening last night, Mac offered a brief overview of the scheme: a string of popular songs, with each hours’ worth more or less representing a particular decade. Many are of course instantly recognizable numbers, but he’s mixed in some genuine obscurities (and will also be writing some of his own songs).

Mac also promises some spectacular diversions will be part of the still-gestating Gesamtkumstwerk. For example, last night he remarked that he’s come to see the necessity of including a skit for 24 Tiny Tims: “half of them the ukelele-playing Tiny Tim, and half the Charles Dickens type — as choreographed by my dear friend Susan Stroman. (But she doesn’t know that yet.)”

Actually, “a history of popular music” is a misnomer: the songs serve as vehicles for nothing less than Mac’s subversive, “subjective history” of the United States. Through his running commentary — with abundant use of audience collaboration — he de- and recontextualizes the songs.

Mac’s Seattle show involves a distillation of material from the larger project into a stand-alone concert focusing on the theme of “songs of the American right” across the decades.

The guiding conceit is to get the audience to enact a “ritual sacrifice”: Mac’s version, more or less, of catharsis, of which, admittedly, we’re all in need in these unsettling times.

Songs of the American Right wants to force us to face ugly moments in American social and political history and then, through Mac’s ironic deconstruction and parody, to enable the audience to exorcize the associated negativity in what he calls “a radical-fairy realness ritual.”

Backed in this show by a band of three musicians (piano, bass, and drums) and a local burlesque artist as guest performer, Mac morphed from standup comic to larger-than-life glitter queen to confrontational therapist. The show flows past several hiccups with an improvisatory rhythm.

He was clad in a fantastically overwrought, deliriously reflective costume, complete with a Lady Liberty crown, that was designed by Machine Dazzle (who’s crafting a different costume for each decade of the big show).

Mac had a sequence of topics in his sights: religious and political hive-think, capital punishment, gender conformity, sexual repression, civil rights, and homophobia.

Each of these he hooked onto associated songs, preserving the original lyrics but undermining them with his commentary and audience-participation frolics. (Don’t even  think of trying to weasel out by sitting in the most anonymous seat. You won’t succeed.)

Some of these were self-consciously gimmicky, but forgivably so thanks to Mac’s sheer humor and stage moxie and humor; some, like a call to a communal “high school same-sex prom dance” (where Mac insisted that the entire audience leave their seats and join together onstage, intended to “undo” the judgmentalism of Ted Nugent’s 1970s song “Snakeskin Cowboy”), introduced a fascinating dynamic of awkwardness and vulnerability.

That points to the real flavor of Songs of the American Right — and of  Mac’s overall aesthetic. This is an artist not interested in offering a polished “product” to his audience to consume as performance. Some segments of his show were less polished, less persuasive, some were too drawn out. The historical points are intentionally exaggerated, at times sledgehammer fashion. (“What is there about this,” he asked, pointed to his costume, “that says ‘lack of hyperbole?!'”) But for Mac, a “mixed” experience is more authentic than precision-engineered illusions of perfection.

Mac sang a few well-known icons, like “An Okie from Muskogee” and the opening “Amazing Grace”, sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” But many songs on his set list were historical curiosities, doubtless first-time discoveries for the audience: “Christ the Apple Tree” (a pious hymn popular in the 1790s), the 1920s tune “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!” and the anti-war song from the WWI era, ““I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” (cleverly set off against its “right-wing” counterpart urging manly men to go to war).

Mac wasn’t too concerned about a literal association of each song with a “conservative” perspective. “Amazing Grace” became a symbol for the topic of churchgoing conformity — “one of the few kinds of rituals we still have in America, like sports,” Mac said. “Where everyone’s on the same team, and it’s homogenous.”

As with the anti-war/pro-war song confrontation from the early 20th century, he counterpointed the racism of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” with Nina Simone’s defiant “Mississippi Goddamn” in one of the show’s most electrifying highlights.

And does judy have pipes: Mac’s remarkably versatile vocal stylings were grounded throughout in charismatic musicianship. In a touching encore, Mac rose high above the audience, perched on a stool, leading a group-sing of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” — gently yielding the reins to the assembled crowd.

–(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: performance, review, theater

Holcombe Waller’s Wayfinders at On the Boards

Holcombe Waller; photo by Zoe Ghertner

Holcombe Waller; photo by Zoe Ghertner

My preview of Wayfinders, Holcombe Waller’s biggest show to date and coming to On the Boards this week, is now live on CityArts:

“Pushing boundaries” and “defying genres” are among the most tired clichés in arts writing these days. But along comes a visionary like Holcombe Waller, who manages to push the boundaries of the genre defiers, and genuinely eye-opening things happen. Seattle audiences have a chance to experience Waller’s most ambitious—and decidedly boundary-ripping—project to date when Wafinders comes to On the Boards for its fully staged premiere on April 10-12.

There’s no real point trying to caption Wayfinders with a label—song cycle, music theater, video space opera?—since Waller’s new work maps out a region of its own, synthesizing these elements into a deliriously hypnotic performance experience.

“Ultimately it’s about the evolution of consciousness that we see happening in connection with our technology,” Waller explains. “Wayfinders imagines a distant future where our conscious and technology merge and become interdependent.” In that headspace, how do we navigate a sense of identity? How do we connect with others while our own reality changes as we become increasingly entangled in and dependent on our technology?

Read the rest

Filed under: new music, performance

The Art of Gregory Maqoma

Gregory Maqoma in Exit/Exist; photo: John Hogg

Gregory Maqoma in Exit/Exist; photo: John Hogg

This is why I love Seattle’s On the Boards: recently OtB presented Exit/Exist, the moving production by Gregory Maqoma and his
Vuyani Dance Theatre that’s currently on tour in the U.S.

A dancer, choreographer, and director from Johannesburg, Maqoma turns his attention in this piece to his heritage as a descendant of the 19th-century Xhosa chief Jongum-sobomvu Maqoma. Exit/Exist traces the wrenching story of Chief Maqoma’s heroic but doomed struggle against the British colonizers who ruthlessly dispossessed the Xhosa, destroying their ancestral way of life.

The piece itself unfolds as a spellbinding narrative fabric. Each thread enhances the others: Maqoma’s restlessly inventive dance steps, the score performed live by the brilliant Italian guitarist Giuliano Modarelli, with vocal harmonies by the ensemble Complete, and visuals that symbolically evoke the Xhosa’s cultural traditions and the crisis forced on them by the colonialist interlopers, ending with Chief Maqoma’s tragic defeat.

In the opening sequence, Maqoma – his back to the audience, clad in a silver jacket – weightlessly dances an extended solo suggesting perhaps a contemporary incarnation of the Chief – the situation faced by the survivors. From this the story then leaps across generations and geographies, effortlessly blending traditional, urban griot, folk, and popular idioms into a compelling whole that has the texture of a multi-faceted myth – and that haunts the imagination long after. It’s the same sorrowful pattern of conquest and loss once again, but rendered painfully real and present.

In an interview about his piece Beautiful Me, Maqoma describes the immediately recognizable emotional and personal connection his performances achieve:

I break the fourth wall, I get as close to my audience as possible and it is not space closeness but its by feeling, I want to be one with my audience, I invite them by opening all doors and scrapping away all conventions for them to feel safe with me. When they are safe with me, I’m safe with them, therefore we can begin to negotiate on all levels.

Filed under: dance, performance

Suit the Accent to the Word


The British Library Board has released some online samples illustrating recent theories about the kind of pronunciation that would have been current in Shakespeare’s time. And it’s a far cry from the Very Serious Accent that sounds so at home among the aristos at Downton Abbey.

David Crystal, a British linguist who has also written about the social impact of texting, is a prominent expert in the field known as “original pronunciation.” OP is about putting the theory of how Shakespeare and his colleagues would have pronounced the Bard’s words into practice. You might think of it as a sort of linguistic equivalent to the historically informed performance practice movement familiar from early music. OP has been going strong for about a decade, starting with landmark productions of Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida at the Globe Theatre in London.

(David Crystal)

On his website devoted to information about the latest findings in OP, Crystal offers a handy summary of why it matters:

OP performance brings us as close as possible to how old texts would have sounded. It enables us to hear effects lost when old texts are read in a modern way. It avoids the modern social connotations that arise when we hear old texts read in a present-day accent.

For Shakespeare’s actual words:

–Rhymes that don’t work in modern English suddenly work.
–Puns missed in modern English become clear.
–New assonances and rhythms give lines a fresh impact.
–OP illustrates what is meant by speaking ‘trippingly upon the tongue’ (Hamlet).
–OP suggests new contrasts in speech style, such as between young and old, court and commoners, literate and illiterate.
–OP motivates fresh possibilities of character interpretation.

Crystal and his son, the actor Ben Crystal, give an introduction to the premises of OP:

Filed under: linguistics, performance, Shakespeare

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