Downtown Epic: TAYLOR MAC'S The Lily's Revengeby Linda Leseman
In the modest black box space of The Bushwick Starr—occupied this Sunday morning by some twenty-odd performers and a three-piece band—a slide whistle signals the beginning of rehearsal. Time, a personified cuckoo clock (Bianca Leigh), speaks what everyone present already knows:
“This play is LOOOOOOOOOOONG. No, really. Long. It is so long, you might actually forget your name.”
Then she adds, “You are doomed.”
“Doomed” is perhaps what a play of the scale of The Lily’s Revenge would be, were it not conceived by playwright and actor Taylor Mac. For the show’s run at HERE Arts Center from October 29 through November 22, Mac has united over 40 performers and six directors in a five-act, five-hour behemoth of an event. And every collaborator is being paid (with money raised by Mac and HERE).
Even more audacious is Mac’s plan to take the show on the road after its New York debut and to rework it as a site-specific piece in several European cities.
Assistant director Paul Zimet succinctly describes the unique challenge of the project Mac has envisioned: “He’s trying to do this sort of large, epic vision on a sort of downtown aesthetic—and downtown budget, too.”
Mac is aware that the project, which he calls “this huge extravaganza”, seems ridiculously impossible to pull off. “I’ve been raising money for three years now,” he says, “and I have more money than I’ve ever had for any project that I’ve ever done, and I still don’t have enough to pay everybody a respectable amount.” Still, his reasons for mounting a show of this size are less irrational and less self-serving than one might expect. “I look around, and I see all my performer friends, and all the things that are happening, and I’m just thrilled,” he explains. “So I wanted to bring that community and be able to put it onstage.” He jokes that providing jobs to so many artists is his version of a “stimulus package.”
The five-act structure of The Lily’s Revenge is inspired by Japanese Noh theater, and each act reflects the diversity of the artists involved. An ensemble of 10 different artists appears in each segment. The first act, directed by Zimet, is a musical with lyrics by Mac and music by Rachelle Garniez. The second act is written in verse and the third is a dance piece. The fourth act uses video and live performance, and the fifth act, directed by David Drake, combines all of the artists and styles from the previous four. Ultimately, 40 cast members perform simultaneously (in what Drake calls “Noh-mo,” meaning slow-motion movements similar to Noh gestures).
Theater history includes a few landmark epic productions. For most, the length of the work limits the number of performances it can sustain. Peter Brook’s 1985 staging of the Mahabharata was a one-time event, though it did find immortality in a television miniseries recreation. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, adapted from the Dickens novel by David Edgar in 1980, was an eight-hour affair split into two performances; it managed to make it from London to Broadway as well as onto celluloid, but it’s rarely revived in the theater. Other plays divided into multiple evenings include Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia.
Nearly all of these epic works premiered outside of the United Sates and with budgets considerably larger than that of The Lily’s Revenge. Zimet notes, “I think in Europe, where they have more government support of the arts, they have more things like that. I think it’s true that it’s more unusual here.”
One of Mac’s inspirations for the play is the work of French director Ariane Mnouchkine, of the Théâtre du Soleil, in Paris. Among Mnouchkine’s productions is Les Atrides, a series of Greek plays, developed between 1990 and 1992 and subsequently performed in six different countries. Like Mac’s use of Noh structure, Mnouchkine incorporated Asian influences such as Kathakali, an elaborate form of Indian dance-drama, into Les Atrides. Still, the idea of a touring epic show remains something of an anomaly—particularly in America.
Logistically, presenting an epic play in a small downtown theater poses major challenges in terms of space. Kristin Marting, Artistic Director of HERE, has worked closely with Mac to devise creative solutions to the reality that, with such limited space, it’s almost impossible to keep artists and audience members separate during intermissions. “We realized that people would have to use the restroom, go to the café, etc.,” she explains. “We decided that it was really important to activate those spaces, so there will be art happening wherever you go.” In Noh, these short interludes are called ai-kyōgen; in The Lily’s Revenge, the ai-kyōgen functions as extensions of the main story. Additionally, the dressing rooms will be open to the audience, a choice inspired by Mnouchkine. “The audience members can come down and hang out with the cast during intermissions,” says Zimet, adding that this is “part of the spirit of trying to have less of a separation between the audience and the artists.”
The creation of a sense of community is integral to The Lily’s Revenge. Marting says that a primary goal of the work is to create “a community that reflects the eclecticism, diversity, and quirkiness of New York City, as opposed to staying within a narrow ilk.” Having worked with Mac for 10 years, she is confident the show will succeed in drawing people—artists and audiences alike—closer together.
The themes of the play support this feeling of inclusivity. The story follows a Lily, played by Mac, who wants to marry a human Bride (Amelia Zirin-Brown). But, as the Groom (Frank Paiva) says, “Marriage isn’t between a woman and a plant.” (Sound familiar?) The Lily must go on a quest to defeat The Great Longing, a deity represented by a stage curtain (James Tigger! Ferguson), whose hilariously reluctant burlesque striptease in the third act gives new meaning to the words “cocktail napkin.” The Great Longing uses “nostalgia as a tool for oppression,” and it is this oppression that the Lily attempts to overcome in an effort to create a community that allows a human to marry a plant.
The most obvious real-world parallel is the debate over gay marriage, but Mac seeks to dig deeper than that political issue, “so that people that think like me” – meaning people in favor of gay marriage – “won’t just come and be affirmed,” he says. “I’m hoping they’ll get something out of it other than ‘Gays, yay!’” He has his own theories about how complacency with a nostalgic or homogeneous culture can stifle one’s emotions. “Being afraid of something that’s different and that’s surprising is being afraid of feeling,” he says. “Right now I’m trying to get us to feel. I think that’s probably going to be my job for the rest of my life.”
Getting an audience to feel—all the way through a five-hour play—is a hefty undertaking, and Mac is realistic about the possibility of flaws in the production. “My goal is not perfection for this,” he says. “This is going to be rough around the edges. You’re going to see the strings, and you’re going to see the faults in it because it’s so massive and so big. But that’s part of what I’m doing. I’m creating a community and trying to show all aspects of a community—not a very polished, clean version of it.”
“I think this is going to be an interesting balance of chaos, working off the cuff, and also very precisely crafted work,” Zimet predicts. “We’re all being ambitious in the level of what we want it to be.”
Often, Mac refers to himself as “a theater artist working in the genre of pastiche,”—pastiche being an assembly of disparate elements that becomes a unified whole. In a way, what he’s creating with The Lily’s Revenge is a living collage. It’s an attempt to blend Japanese, French, and downtown New York theater into a single experience much larger than its individual parts. For now, its home is very Off-Broadway. But afterwards? All the world could be its stage. It may sound like an overly lofty aim, but Mac’s ability to inspire so many artists to join the New York production suggests that he could do the same in another city. Marting seems fully convinced as she says, “I didn’t doubt for a second that Taylor could pull off this idea.”
The Lily’s Revenge runs Oct. 29 to Nov. 22 at HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Ave. Please visit here.org for more information.
Linda Leseman is a journalism grad student at NYU. She is glad that she's about to graduate.