We are living in an era where so-called reality TV seems to have stifled audiences' abilities to tell the difference between a manufactured experience and an actual one; where the proliferation of tiny electronic devices enables each of us not only to tune out the environment we're actually in but also to create a virtual environment of our own choosing to replace it. In such a world, what could be more subversive than a work of theatre that demands nothing more than that we engage with its (a)liveness for almost five of our precious hours? And what could be more exhilarating, affirming, and joyous than to report that such an event fully delivers on its promises: That those five hours sail by like a happy and satisfying dream, leaving us refreshed and invigorated and ready to navigate our crazy socially networked society with just a bit more alertness and awareness.
Such is the miracle of Taylor Mac's The Lily's Revenge. This new production—epic really is the only word that does it justice—is intelligent, endlessly surprising, and above all spectacularly entertaining. It inspires hyperbolic pronouncements like "the most important event of the theater season" or "the essential must-see event of the year," and then thumbs its nose at such portentous preposterousness (or bares its bottom; it's that kind of cheeky show, after all).
This thing is BIG. It's nearly five hours long, including three intermissions; it spans five acts, each directed by a different artist in singular style; there are fifty artists listed in the program (not counting the dozens of others who appear only on video in the background). It's about Pretty Much Everything, including gay marriage, equality, tolerance, ecology, the futility of longing, the wastefulness of nostalgia, the attractiveness of cliche, the way that familiarity breeds both contempt and its opposite, the artifice and the profundity of art, and a great deal more that I'm just not thinking of at this particular moment. Most fundamentally, it's about itself, which is to say that it's about several dozen strangers sharing a night full of unexpected moments together and discovering that the experience of sharing may be the most special takeaway of all.
I want to tell you something about the narrative, which is significant and complicated though not at all difficult to follow. It involves a Lily who decides that she wants to marry a bride (flowers are apparently all feminine in this play). The Great Longing, who is personified as an old-fashioned theatre curtain, is furious that the Lily wants to subvert the traditional story of Bride and Groom in this fashion; the rule seems to be that only a man may wed a bride, and so the Lily determines to become a man. Many obstacles stand in her path, but after journeys to a spiritual garden and to a factory farm in Ecuador, the Lily seems bound not just to get her wish but to get (as promised by the show's title) her revenge. I don't want to give too much away, but I will tell you that, in the manner of many fairy tales, the Great Longing is revealed to have no clothes at all, and the answer to what ails us turns out to be Love.
The Pope figures in this somehow, as does Susan Stewart, author of On Longing.
Do not be afraid of the size of The Lily's Revenge. You'll spend about 3-3/4 hours inside the theatre and another hour roaming around HERE Arts Center during the three intermissions. There's plenty of stimulating stuff to do during the breaks, including eating and drinking at the cafe, playing voyeur or party animal in the Discussion Disco, and enjoying musical numbers performed by various of the alarmingly talented performers in the show. (The performances during these "recesses" are staged by HERE's artistic director Kristin Marting.)
Each of the five acts of the play is different from the others. The first, directed by The Talking Band's Paul Zimet, is a wildly off-kilter fairy tale presented in the manner of a golden age musical comedy that has somehow been broken. The second is directed by Rachel Chavkin of The TEAM and is a poetic flower garden with a raw drag aesthetic (it is entirely in verse, though different kinds of verse). Next is an act choreographed by Faye Driscoll that is essentially a dream ballet, albeit one with dialog and strange interludes and a climactic musical number that is a striptease (it is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the show that this set piece, though reminiscent of "classic" burlesque a la Sally Rand or Gypsy Rose Lee, is performed by a man). This is followed by a short Act IV on video (directed by Aaron Rhyne); and then a finale, staged by David Drake, that somehow brings all of the foregoing together without ever feeling like it's repeating itself.
I was captivated by the costumes, which are the work of the dazzlingly imaginative Machine Dazzle; by the music (composed by Rachelle Garniez and played by an on-stage band comprised of Matt Ray, Derek Nievergelt, Stefan Schatz, and Jon Natchez); by the spare, stylized, very effective sets designed by Nick Vaughan; by the glittery makeup created by Derrick Little; by the off-kilter but delightful choreography in Act I devised by Julie Atlas Muz. The ensemble is wondrous, and I will mention a few of the most memorable—World Famous *BOB* as the "Card Girl," our mistress of ceremonies; James Tigger! Ferguson as the Great Longing; Amelia Zirin-Brown (aka Lady Rizo) as the Bride Diety; Miss Bianca Leigh as Time, the Wind, and the Stepmother; and Darlinda Just Darlinda as Bride Love—while tipping my hat to all.
At the center, of course, is the incomparable Taylor Mac, who here proves himself to be not just a radiant starry presence on stage (the kind of performer you simply cannot look away from) but also a theatrical auteur/force of nature of Wellesian ambition and potency. It's not just Mac's intellect or talent or even audacity that makes The Lily's Revenge the magical stupendous piece of theatre that it is: it's the over-the-top heart, full of unwavering faith in himself, dozens of disparate collaborators, and roomfuls of audience members he's never even met, that they will make The Lily's Revenge possible every night. For possibility is finally what it's all about...