“Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” —Wittgenstein
For “The Lily’s Revenge,” Taylor Mac’s latest opus at HERE, he borrowed the 5-act structure of classical Noh theatre to construct this whopping five-hour piece—magical, intellectual, hysterical, and linguistically acrobatic. The audience is led—by the divine, effervescent, and perpetually bubbly World Famous *BOB*—from lobby to theatre and back for each “recess,” during which the audience is entertained by short, punchy acts meant to reference Japanese Kyogen. Now, forget about Noh because I won’t mention it again for another three hours.
Act I: The Deity
Think Brechtian alienation crossed with Robert Ludlam’s Theatre of the Ridiculous. A proscenium and house lights that refuse to dim. A fat kid brings his potted lily—who has become self-aware from being talked to by his friend Amelia—to the show. Lily is, of course, Taylor Mac, in an outrageous costume of shredded dark green under lime green fishnets, whorls of orange makeup, and flamtastic lily petals. The audience is warned by Time—with a cuckoo clock on her head—that the show will last forever, that the “Great Longing”—personified by a curtain, and played with stunning grandeur by Tigger!—has imprisoned the players, a Greek chorus of bridesmaids. Already we’re wowed by the costumes; Lily’s, obs, but even the details on the spearcarriers; dig the half-inflated balloons hanging like gourds and the wedding cake-sodden paper plates. We’re set up for theatrical in-jokes, as the Curtain taunts Time about her “last aside” and cautions players not to break the fourth wall.
Time is a stiff herald, Lily a juvenile fool, the Curtain a megalomaniac stock villain, the Bridesmaids automatons enchanted by a fairy tale of a bride—the Bride an enchanting child puppet manipulated by koken (Kristine Haruna Lee, who sings with a delicious, smoky-caramel voice). Lily, who wants to be the center of attention, like all children and, let’s face it, all performers, takes the stage and makes up his own story. We’re pell-mell into meta-fiction, all Brecht, and all silliness. Time is recast as a femi-Nazi Hegel-reading step-mother—who wants the Lily to fight the Curtain and destroy institutionalized narrative—and in a delicious bit of stagecraft the bride puppet is transformed into Amelia, the girl who breathed life into lily, trapped in the play as the Bride. You following this nonsense so far?
It doesn’t matter. The skill of the first act is setting the audience up to laugh and get loose and STAY, through songs veering from Mexican ranchera to ragtime. The Bride (Lady Rizo) dumps the Lily, finds a new groom, and begrudgingly agrees to marry the Lily—in four hours, if he can become a man. Meanwhile, one of the bridesmaids is revealed as Susan Stewart, the critic and author of “On Longing,” and is forced into the role of evil step-mother. (The exquisite Heather Christian, who dips her voice from 40s moll to modern academic without missing a beat, and wonderfully parries confusion with languidity.) Lily jumps out of the proscenium, into darkness.
Act II. Ghost Warrior
Think Elizabethan melodrama crossed with a BDT haiku-off (or, if you rather, flower Def Poetry Jam fu). The space is reconfigured into a black box, the set all swings and hanging camo; Lily falls, strumming a ukulele and singing. A gang of flowers in flamboyant, outrageous costumes, led by a stunning sunflower (Daphne Gaines) whose singing voice is clear as a bell ringing across a North Dakota landscape. This is a Julie Taymor nightmare, an underground world where everyone must speak in verse—not just a writing trick, but a metafictional writing trick. The flowers speak in iambic, they force Lily into it, and when Time enters—as the Wind—they settle for rhyming couplets. Ratcheting up the narrative and intensifying the mood, Lily becomes the “chosen flower” who must lead a revolution against longing, consumption, and corporate greed in order to free the Dirt, Time’s daughter, imprisoned in Ecuador. Never mind the bollocks, this act is quick, dark, and pleasingly alluring, ditching Brecht in favor of Midsummer Night’s Dream by way of Miami drag with a hint of the audience-participation stylings of Peter Pan (Save Tinkerbell!). In terrifying surround-sound, the gang of guerillas eulogize flowers “killed for [human] apologies / and ‘kiss me,’ ‘love me, please’s.” Again, the makeup and costumes—Sunflower, Baby’s Breath, Tick—are beyond wicked. Machine Dazzle’s work must be seen to be believed; Taymor only wishes she could have so conceived. (Snap. That was a good rhyme.)
Act III. Love Act
Think Beckett meets Butoh, more movement than language, and backed by pure percussion (the thunderous Stefan Schatz). The Wind coaches Lily on the here and now, reading from “On Longing,” and the focus moves to a new Bride and Groom. The Bride, Darlinda Just Darlinda is electric and spasmodic, a 3D moving hallucination of bridezilla insanity and indecision. A new chorus of freaky-deakier bridesmaids carry in the beaten Susan Stewart, and the ensemble enact excruciatingly intense Butoh-worthy tableaus as the Lily moves in Noh-slomo offstage. Act III is “Waiting for Go-Rose” with apropos vaudevillian humor; an exercise in bottled hysteria, or, as the text itself puts it, “a nightmare within a dream ballet.” The Curtain enters in a “to go” curtain costume, and we get a taste of what we were promised in Act I—Tigger!s nutsack. I mean, come on, if he’s in the show, you know you’re gonna see it. But even if you HAVE seen a man striptease out of a curtain costume before, you’ve never seen him do it while crying. Tigger! outdoes himself here, and proves himself truly terrifying while almost naked. Stripped of his power—the dreams of others—he demands more, screaming, “You think dreams are for fun? Dreams are for survival!” Cue evil, spine-tingling laugh.
Act IV. Living Person
“Queer Eye” meets “Robot Chicken,” a convivial stop-motion action figure film of the Lily’s adventures in Ecuador. Highest laugh-per-minute ratio of the evening, and, strangely, more successful in community-making due to audience familiarity (we’re all more accustomed to movie theaters than theatre theatres, sadly).
Act V. The Mad Demon
—which brings EVERYONE back in a full spatial reversal—the action is now on the risers, and we’re on stage, so to speak, and the double cast of wedding party begin to tear each other apart. Chaos, calm, chaos, calm—like the ramping ending of “Brazil” or your last wake-up-sweating nightmare, with bumble bees. Threatening to become a diatribe against the institution of marriage—limiting, since we’ve been set up to assume we were part of a revolt against institution in general—we’re distracted by the return of the Curtain as a mastodon of cocktail-napkin wishes, the twisting of cliché, “relativism has its day,” “manipulative underscoring”—which works, kiddos—the Lily wondering whether or not to become a man, an orgy, and a surprise twist that I simply won’t spill.
“The Lily’s Revenge” is sprawling, epic, and uneven—deliberately so, yet in its insane ambition truly achieves something groundbreaking, though whether or not it achieves its goal is truly anyone’s guess. There are few missteps (the lighting design is unnecessarily busy in Act III—color scrollers? Really?) and many giant leaps. While I’d like to say that “Lily” offers something for everyone, I suspect that the prototypical straight male would be a little lost. I’d have plucked daisies for a tad more manliness in the direction of the Grooms, and there were at least two moments in the piece where I found myself the only one in the crowd laughing and wondered if I were, in fact, the only straight man in the house—albeit sufficiently gay to know those costumes are fabulous. This is almost certainly deliberate—if Mac is reaching for a community, does he—should he?—give a fuck about the Neanderthals who rate a “0” on the Kinsey scale? If “we” are up against a pig-headed resistance to gay marriage amongst hawks in the fuck-you “real America,” shouldn’t we settle for “community” as a like-minded group of freaky theatre-frenzied lefties? It’s a question, not an answer, and in Mac’s ontology he takes Occam’s razor to the throats of the bigoted straight-edge.
The true enemy, as taken from “On Longing,” is “the social disease of nostalgia,” as antithetical to the here and now, the true deity of art. Where “The Lily’s Revenge” admits to its own antithesis—promising nudity as it “sells tickets,” embracing allegory as a tool to expose allegory for its own shallow frivolity, wrapping the whole shebang in a Joseph Campbell hero’s journey disguised as a romantic comedy burrito—the show’s lack of accessibility to the heathens still ensures that while it will make true believers of passive congregation members, there will be few new converts. This stuff won’t play in the sticks, son. This ain’t no big tent religion.
But while “Lily” may not have something for everyone, the last act has all the elements of a Broadway musical ending while cleverly struggling to deliver that most elusive of arrivals, a catharsis without a silver platter—Aristotle passing for Brecht, if you will. Lily—and I suspect, Taylor Mac—is, at the penultimate, indecisive as to how to leave it, and settles on an inference masked as a crowd-pleaser. You walk out feeling satisfied and exhausted, enter the cold embrace of the New York’s unfeeling, impending winter, hail a cab, and realize you’ve been had.