The Bridegroom Wore Eye Shadow, Petals and Lime Fishnet

Publication date: 
November 7, 2009
Author: 
Charles Isherwood

Arguments in favor of gay marriage have taken many forms, from snappy phrases stretched across muscle T’s to miniature musicals on YouTube, op-ed pieces and learned essays. (My favorite, from a poster at a protest march: “We Can’t All Marry Liza Minnelli!”) But surely none can match the mad extravagance of “The Lily’s Revenge,” a scrappy spectacle written by and starring the drag artist Taylor Mac, now splashing across the stage of Here Arts Center in a swirling tide of tattered lime green fishnet, eye shadow and sequins.

A five-hour tide of fishnet, eye shadow and sequins, that is.

“This play is very long!” intones an imperious female figure as the show begins. “In fact this play will be much longer than advertised. Trust me when I say, this play could very well last the rest of your life!” Heed her we should, since the speaker is something of an authority on the topic of duration: she is Time itself, squeezed into a black cocktail dress in the shape of an hourglass, with an elaborate cuckoo clock affixed to her head, Ziegfeld Follies-style.

Time the character, played with histrionic hauteur by a performer known as Miss Bianca Leigh, flits in and out of this crackpot allegory, in which a lily (the wide-eyed Mr. Mac) embarks on a convoluted romantic odyssey spanning realms human and horticultural, spiritual and worldly, raunchy and academic. Yet time the concept gradually ebbs away as the evening progresses.

Sure, you might occasionally be aware that a 15-inning baseball game could be played, or any of several Wagner operas performed, in less time than it takes for Mr. Mac and his cast of more than 40 dancers, actors and musicians to bridge the gap between once-upon-a-time and happily-ever-after. But the riot of styles sometimes clashing and sometimes coalescing during “The Lily’s Revenge” offers so many incidental pleasures (resplendently tacky-ornate costumes, a dream ballet, a haiku competition, a stage curtain made entirely of crumpled cocktail napkins) that theatrical time — always a curiously malleable element — seems to contract. To my happy surprise, I emerged from “The Lily’s Revenge” more refreshed than exhausted. I cannot always say the same for performances of “Götterdämmerung.”

The evening is sliced into manageable portions by the inclusion of three intermissions, during which various carnivalesque diversions are presented in other parts of the theater. The “Discussion Disco” doubles as the actors’ dressing room. If you’re in the mood for a marriage proposal, this too can be arranged. (Presumably it is nonbinding.)

Presiding over the intermission festivities, and encouraging the audience members to interact during the pauses instead of fish for their cellphones, is a buxom woman with a frizzy halo of butterflies in her wig and a gong to signal the time for re-entry. The seating is reconfigured for each act, lending a little more novelty and surprise to the experience.

Not that there isn’t plenty already. Mr. Mac, wrapped in strips of sequins and that lurid green fishnet, his bald head painted in neon colors and splattered with magenta sequins, flounces in as the epic begins, a giant plastic flower pot suspended from his shoulders. This humanoid lily takes a seat in the auditorium, but is soon arguing with the storytellers onstage, primarily the deity known as the Great Longing, god of nostalgia, who is also a talking stage curtain (and who is played with waspish élan by an actor known as James Tigger! Ferguson).

The cranky curtain intends to rise on a traditional story of love and marriage between blushing bride and ardent groom. His mother, Time, snorts at this outmoded fantasy and the manufactured sentimentality it inspires. She invites the lily to join the show, “to elevate the canned drivel of nostalgia with the here and now.” The lily’s roots in the dirty grit of the earth qualify him for this task, it seems. But once the spotlight hits this newly minted floral star, he rebels against his subversive task and conceives a desire to marry the bride himself.

This sits well with just about nobody, particularly the bride, played by Amelia Zirin-Brown, who sings her songs bewitchingly, with a tremulous vibrato suggesting a scratchy record from the 1920s. She hankers after a more normal groom, a human one (Frank Paiva). Make that an all too human one. He serenades his love with a song that begins, “I think of pornographic images when I make love to you.” Quickly rethinking her choice, the bride tells the lily that if he can somehow be transformed into a man within say, four hours, she will be his.

Further attempts to elucidate the hallucinatory plot would be pointless, and also a bit of a drag. (Pun definitely not intended.) Mr. Mac’s dramaturgy resembles not a French but an English garden, where no fixed borders rule, and the designing hand mimics the unruly workings of nature. With five different directors in charge of the five acts, the production speaks a polyglot theatrical language encompassing everything from puppetry to modern dance to bits of Noh to bigger bits of burlesque.

My favorite act may be the second (directed by Rachel Chavkin), inspired by Japanese theater and set in an anthropomorphized garden, in which flowers mourn their wholesale slaughter to provide decoration for weddings and engage in a competitive “haiku-off.” (Immortal gag as the flowers trade poems: “Rose’s turn.”) I will never again regard baby’s breath as anything other than a sacrificial victim and symbol of human cruelty — and tastelessness. The costumes by Machine Dazzle, who also plays a daisy in this act, are magnificent here and throughout the show.

“The Lily’s Revenge” is as much a party as a theatrical presentation, and you should be prepared to be stuck occasionally in a corner with a less than entrancing conversationalist. Some sequences — well, maybe most sequences — are longer than they need to be. Mr. Mac’s versifying is impressive in its volume and its whimsy, but he seems a little besotted by his own lyric gifts. While the text is festooned with learned references to philosophers and academic theory, the writing is far too scattered and diffuse, and the stage too full of bizarre, entrancing diversion for any of it to sink in coherently.

In any case Mr. Mac is aiming more for amusement than enlightenment. The jokes are more memorable than the lit-crit gabble. The final act, directed by David Drake, culminates in a mass polymorphous wedding interrupted by a machine-gun-wielding pope, who later dies and is resurrected.

“Didn’t the pope die?” a mystified participant asks.

“He’s a stock character,” Time says. “One pope passes, and another pope pops up in his place.”

If you seriously want to explore the tension between the messy beauty of lived experience and the human yearning for tidy narrative, you could spend one of the intermissions, or even one of the acts, I suppose, reading from Susan Stewart’s “On Longing,” one of a pile of books Mr. Mac drew on for inspiration, which are collected in the “Context Corner” downstairs. Open any page and you come upon the likes of this:

“The function of belongings within the economy of the bourgeois subject is one of supplementarity, a supplementarity that in consumer culture replaces its generating subject as the interior milieu substitutes for, and takes the place of, an interior self.”

Er, perhaps later. Get me back to the drag queens, please.

THE LILY’S REVENGE

Written and conceived by Taylor Mac; dramaturg, Nina Mankin; directed by Paul Zimet, Rachel Chavkin, Faye Driscoll, Aaron Rhyne, David Drake and Kristin Marting; music by Rachelle Garniez; musical director and arranger, Matt Ray; costumes by Machine Dazzle; makeup by Derrick Little; sets by Nick Vaughan; lighting by Seth Reiser; puppets by Emily Decola; video by Mr. Rhyne; associate producer, Abrons Arts Center. Presented by Here Arts Center and Ethyl Crisp. At Here Arts Center, 145 Avenue of the Americas, at Dominick Street, South Village; (212) 352-3101. Through Nov. 22. Running time: 5 hours.

WITH: Taylor Mac, Vanessa Anspaugh, Jonathan Bastiani, World Famous Bob, Salty Brine, Heather Christian, Matthew Crosland, Darlinda Just Darlinda, Machine Dazzle, Kayla Asbell, James Tigger! Ferguson, Daphne Gaines, Ikuko Ikari, Barbara Lanciers, Kristine Haruna Lee, Miss Bianca Leigh, Ellen Maddow, Glenn Marla, Muriel Miguel, Frank Paiva, Kim Rosen, Tina Shepard, Saeed Siamak, Phillip Taratula, Rae C. Wright, Nikki Zialcita and Lady Rizo/Amelia Zirin-Brown.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 11, 2009 
A listing of credits on Saturday with a theater review of “The Lily’s Revenge” at Here Arts Center omitted the surname of a cast member. She is Kayla Asbell.

 

 

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