Before I start I’ll just say this - my review might be tainted by the fact that the star of the show kissed me on the lips in the last scene… We ask ourselves what our goals as theater artists are. What do people expect us to do in this day and age? Some want entertainment, others look to be moved. Some come to watch an idea processed in a new way, to return for an evening to something concrete and physical in the midst of the digital age. Aristotle said theater should “delight and instruct.” Others have said that a play should drive people to political action. Or just to join a few people’s consciousnesses for a couple hours in a space – to create community. Nowadays it seems that often an audience wants to see an artist's process, to watch him work through his issues in front of them. In The Lily’s Revenge Taylor Mac and his grandiose crew of 40 performers and 80 collaborators provide all of the above.
They have plenty of time to do it, too, in the five hours (not a typo) of this fantabulous saga. What allows for these five hours to not feel long is the sensible way in which the evening is structured. There are three long intermissions, with activities, a dance floor and a bar. There are five different parts to the play, each helmed by a different director, and as such a new artistic feel every time you come back into the theater to watch the next part. Each part is of a slightly different genre, ranging from a poetic Theater of Flowers (perhaps a nice definition for the entire evening), to dance theater, to video, to Japanese-influenced morality tale.
What makes it all gel is that it never feels like high art. While each one of the beautiful, outrageous costumes (reason enough to come to HERE Arts Center to see the show) is a work of art by itself (design by Machine Dazzle), and the musical accompaniment (composed by Rachelle Garniez), the singing of the actors, and the movement of the dancers are all graceful and strong, Mac makes sure to keep his crew firmly on the level of his spectators. Even when the play addresses grand philosophical questions – the basic setup of the plot is a contemporary comment on Heidegger – it does so with an American simplicity that keeps everyone feeling included. How could you not when the actors’ dressing room turns into a disco at every intermission? Or when you walk into the bathroom and find Taylor serenading you with a ukulele as you urinate?
Theatricality aside, the evening deals with the question of marriage. The writer, it seems, has struggled with this one, so much so that he needed five hours to express his feelings about it. In one of the Kyogens, or intermission activities, audience members are invited to let their rage out on a specific marriage related issue. They are handed a stick and get to pound an inflated rubber doll with name-tags like “gay marriage,” until the doll gives in and stops trying to rise back to her feet.
The story the play tells is about a lily (played by Taylor Mac with his usual magnetism) who decides to become a man in order to marry a woman. The woman (Amelia Zirin Brown) gives him the course of the play to succeed or she will marry her other suitor (Frank Paiva), a plain heterosexual male that sings the memorable line: “I think of pornographic images when I make love to you.” The lily then goes on an epic journey, meets other flowers, makes her way to Ecuador and all the way back to the woman, only to realize she (or rather he at this point) would rather not.
Mac makes his peace with marriage by the end of the play, but the demons must be exorcized along the way. The third part of the play, directed and choreographed by Faye Driscoll, is a powerful wedding nightmare expressed brilliantly through the movement of six talented actor/dancers. This part brings back a character from the first part of the play, the villain of The Lily’s Revenge, Curtain, the God of Longing and the son of Time. In this scene Curtain (a delightfully Wonderland James Tigger Ferguson) shrinks from an entire wall to a red napkin (barely) covering his penis.
The Curtain does make a resurgence in the final part of the play, but only to lose to Lily’s here and now, as the entire cast gathers on the stage to make merry, and Taylor Mac himself appears, this time not as a flower, and speaks to us earnestly as a person (if you’re lucky you might get kissed too - sit in the front row if you want it, further back if you don’t). Then this five hour community disperses, and we each carry our little thoughts and joys away.
The Lily’s Revenge is the type of show that New York City makes, and makes New York City. Just as Mr. Mac is paying tribute in his work to the downtown greats of the 1970’s Theater of the Ridiculous, so will theater artists in this city’s future be building upon his theatrical contributions for years to come.