Red Tide Blooming
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 15, 2006
Forget Urinetown, forget Avenue Q: if you're in search and/or in need of authentically edgy, exhilarating, and fearless musical theatre that can liberate the form from hidebound traditions and make it dangerous and relevant, then Taylor Mac's extraordinary new extravaganza Red Tide Blooming is the show you've been waiting for. This terrific new work —by turns sexy, hilarious, subversive, scary, and Ridiculous (with a capital "R")—is thrilling despite being about 20 minutes too long. Best of all, it's never dumb, never ironic, never campy, and never recursively meta-theatrically self-aware. I loved it.
The complicated story begins in Suburbia, where a green-skinned hermaphrodite named Olokun is shunned by his neighbors because, well, he's a green-skinned hermaphrodite. (He also walks around naked most of the time, thus more or less displaying his unusual sex organs for all to see/gape at; in one of the show's numerous well-timed fourth-wall-breaking moments, another actor hands Olokun a piece of cloth to drape around himself, noting that the audience isn't listening to him because they're staring at his genitalia.)
So anyway, Olokun is sad and alienated and decides to go off in search of freaks like himself. He's diverted by a Blowfish who is traveling around Suburbia with a bossy, gruff blonde named Lynn who eventually is revealed to be Vice President Cheney's wife. Lynn takes Olokun under her wing, so to speak, and promises to bring him to a floating repository of the last surviving freaks in the world (this would be Coney Island), freakdom not being what it used to be on account of all the suburban misfits having journeyed to the city where their freakishness is interpreted as fashionableness. (Or something like: the arguments here are dense and surprising if not always completely fleshed out.)
Lynn and Olokun head to the Big City, where they meet a strange old woman named Slavaskia who has enormous red breasts, and from there they go to Clubland, where they come face-to-face with a buff blond TV weatherman named Colin Clement, a smooth-talking politician called Beep, and an imposing, supposedly typical suburban housewife named Constance Faubourg; these three are the keepers of the "Collective Conscious," which turns out to be a lime green pullover sweater.
More stuff happens after this, all of it equally bizarre; Olokun does eventually make it to the island, where a ritual sacrifice takes place and then (I think) civilization reaches some sort of apocalyptic climax. As I said, it's complicated.
But it's also spellbinding and, more important, insanely thought-provoking. Mac's intellectual range here is astonishing: reasoned attacks on conformity bounce against rants on media-saturated culture and the egoism engendered by modern technology; comments on the decline of political theatre sit side-by-side with radical political commentary. Recent events are interpreted as biblical omens, the hypocrisy of monied commercial interests is exposed, and Lynn Cheney sings a song about how she's in love with Saddam Hussein.
What's most exciting about Red Tide Blooming for me, though, is not the content but the form. Mac has created a genuinely subversive musical, turning the traditional values of the genre upside-down and inside-out, substituting Ludlam-esque/Ludlam-inspired Ridiculousness for the book and broad, raunchy burlesque-inspired routines for musical numbers. This is a show that isn't afraid to sing songs about sex organs or to show them uninhibitedly; this is a show featuring a chorus line of mermaids, one of whom is clearly male and another of whom is delighted to lose the seashells that are her only adornments from the waist up. Somehow, it's rude without being vulgar, and it's entertaining without being mindless. And it's spectacularly consistent, and of a piece, throughout.
The Clubland scene is a little masterpiece all by itself, capturing the ugly decadence of complacent American life circa 2006 in a manner as compelling and terrifying as Brecht and Weill must have managed when they unveiled their Threepenny Opera in Weimar Berlin. You can't look away from it, even though you're recoiling on the inside, because you're utterly enthralled by it. Red Tide Blooming jolts us with lightning here, reminding us what theatre can do at its honest and uncompromising best.
Mac's breathless staging is beautifully complimented by Julie Atlas Muz's splendid choreography, which is dazzlingly professional even when it knows it's being silly. The design is simple but effective, featuring expert lighting by Garin Marschall; a colorful set consisting principally of faux-Coney Island-style posters, created by Derrick Little; and an eclectic mix of appropriately garish costumes, makeup, and hairdos by Steven Melendez. Basil Twist has provided some off-the-wall puppets and Stephanie Wells and Daniel Reyes Llinas offer live musical accompaniment on piano and guitar.
The company, mostly downtown alternative burlesque performers, is terrific. Mac himself plays Okolun in a star turn that is nevertheless pretty temperate for most of the show. (There's a too-long sequence at the end in which Mac and the other actors shed their characters to become themselves which prolongs the piece without accomplishing anything new.) Others in the company include Bridget Everett as the tough-minded Lynn, Todd D'Amour as Colin Clement, Bianca Leigh as the formidable Constance Faubourg, and Playhouse of the Ridiculous veteran Ruby Lynn Reyner, bringing gutsy verisimilitude to the role of Slavaskia. The chorus (mermaid and otherwise) is comprised of James Tigger! Ferguson, Laryssa Husiak, Stacey Karpen, Linda "Dirty" Martini, Steven Menendez, Suzi Takahashi, and Layard Thompson.
Red Tide Blooming is not for everybody, and most likely the people who would be most alarmed and shaken up by it will never see it. But that doesn't mean that they shouldn't. Mac's show is a triumphant leap ahead for musicals, or at least a leap off to one side, anyway: in its rigorously uncompromising frankness, it stands as one of the most original and challenging works of this or recent theatre seasons.