Ellen Stewart was one of the most important founders of the off-off Broadway movement, starting the La Mama Theater and giving birth to the non-commercial, artistically audacious and visionary theater that started the careers of artists as widely recognized as Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman. La Mama also gave writers such as Sam Shepard and Harvey Fierstein places to cut their teeth and develop new work as well as providing a first home for performers ranging from Al Paccino to Bette Midler.
The list goes goes on and Ellen Stewart’s legacy deserves a full article on its own. Tonight however, as the lights of Broadway dim for a whole minute in honor of her passing on the 13th of January, (just two days before Taylor Mac’s new play opened at the theater that bares her name) all the tourists in Times Square will share a moment of confusion on their way into whatever dreck they spent one-hundred plus dollars to see, involuntarily participating in a theatrical legacy that transcends the confines of their fluff and spectacle seeking minds. In the days of post-apocalyptic Broadway, this is perhaps the best that we can wish for.
Back downtown at La Mama, Taylor Mac‘s newest work, “The Walk Across America for Mother Earth“, has just premiered and some friends and I had the pleasure of seeing a bit earlier in the week. Although I’d heard about Taylor’s work for a long while, I hadn’t seen anything of his until I got to see the manifesto/extravaganza that was last year’s “The Lily’s Revenge.” Plainly put, that show changed my life. It is still, and may perhaps always be, the single most generous piece of theater I will ever take part in. When that work is re-mounted in San Francisco this spring and I go to see it, I will discuss it more and hopefully will have also contacted Mr. Mac and talked him into giving us an interview. In the meantime, we have his new play to enjoy and while it’s not as epic or multi-faceted as “Lily’s” was, it is something to be seen and celebrated just the same.
“The Walk Across America for Mother Earth” is based on a nine-month protest walk that Mac embarked upon at age nineteen, that started in New York and ended at a Nevada nuclear test site. Told in linear form and musical interludes, along with his signature outlandish costumes and exuberant theatricality, there are some elements of this new show that are very similar to “Lily’s”;he focus here, however, is much more specific and the themes far more tangible. This is not to suggest that “Mother Earth” is a simple show. Though it has a smaller cast, and a smaller budget, the heart of the work is huge and beats loudly.
The largest difference between this show and “Lily’s” is that it is mainly a memory piece and “Lily’s” is an entirely fictional work. “Mother Earth” in many ways is an extravagant evening of storytelling, and is one of the more enjoyable plays of that nature that I have seen in a long while. Though it’s themes are not revelatory and its theatricality doesn’t break any boundaries, it’s choices are bold and often very rewarding, establishing as the evening progresses a specific theatrical language that is all its own. Though the entirety of the production team and cast have all done great work here, in my mind it is Mac’s writing that is the show’s biggest winner. His way with dialogue is extremely impressive, incorporating equal parts antiquated and flowery language, pervy humor and keen observation to create a nearly watertight whole. His words are beautiful to listen to, easy to follow, and are often hilarious as well.
With all of the praise I can bestow upon Mac, there is one element that re-occurs in the works of his that I’ve seen that I find equally as engaging as I do unnerving; the naïvety embodied by the characters he writes for himself to play. While each character is fully developed and justified, making it easy for audiences to become invested in them, the conception of these characters as innocent optimists inside a world where things are bleak and/or challenging, can sometimes feel like a sympathy gaining device. Mac envisions a world where ones outlook and acceptance of others can truly create a beautiful reality; with “Mother Earth”, as with his previous work, he proves this to be so with signature grace and charm. In both “Lily’s Revenge” and “Mother Earth” Mac develops his character from a place of innocence to a three-dimensional understanding of the world in which he lives. It may seem foolish to to call attention to the reoccurring use of an archetype that has successfully been a part of the history of story telling. What excites me the most, however, is to see what will happen if Mac goes on to create a piece where his main character begins his journey in a place of already established self-awareness, and ends up somewhere even more evolved. “Mother Earth” is more of a meditative exploration between the prophetic vision of “Lily’s” and whatever new work will come next.
Mac stands in an extremely tricky place as an artist right now, on the threshold of the underground and the popular as well as on the edge of being a recognizable, reoccurring drag persona and a shape-shifting theatrical being. The consistent reincarnation of his recognizably innocent character is comforting, convincing and engaging but it is also perhaps the one thing that keeps Mac’s work, as brilliant as it may be, from crossing over into the realm of a broader audience. While I would never want Mac’s work to pander, dumb itself down or loose any of it’s energy, whimsy or audacity, I do wonder if there is a way to reach beyond the audience that is drawn to his style instinctually. If it is possible for someone like Mac to reach those among us who may not regularly find themselves relating to a queer lifestyle or to be regular theater attendees, I would be eager to see this take place. He is smart enough, contemporary enough and talented enough for this sort of thing to happen, but I fear it may take an incorporation of a more tangible reality on his part, or a reality more open to beauty and acceptance than may be possible on our part, for his vision and my wishes to ever come into fruition as they deserve to.