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 ultimately 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.