The seemingly austere ’62 Center turned into the vibrant underground New York City theater scene for a brief hour and a half as drag-queen performer Taylor Mac graced the stage. His performance kicked off the Off Center Series, a program of late-night performances showcasing the best of theater that falls just outside the mainstream. If the Series promises more performances like Mac’s, then I would say that this is a welcome (and necessary) addition to the Williams community.
The show was in some regards a standard drag show – common fare in New York’s downtown fringe theaters. But Mac brings a vibrant sense of art and politics to the genre. His personage exaggerates and makes theatrical the feminine rather than merely imitating it.
His initial appearance is something that defies description, though I will try in a few words to do just that: red/orange stockings in varying degrees of rippage, a netted skirt made of what seemed to be a pattern of ripped white gloves, a Dolly Parton-esque wig that had been making its ruffled home in a bag full of drag, and, of course, painted glittery nipples. His face was painted a light shade of blue, the usual places for eye shadow and lipstick exaggerated to a near-violent level – the result being what amounted to an exaggerated glam-clown. Spectacular, terrifying, absolutely captivating – coupled with a sing-song whine that rarely left the high registers, Mac’s personage threw the curtains off the Purple Bubble, and for a brief second, I was home in the East Village.
Mac began with a tirade of how he hates the curtain speech, which then turned into the actual show. The beauty of this was that the audience simply fell into a trance and when Mac told us that he didn’t consider his work “performance art” – that term theorists usually ascribe to his genre – but that what we were watching was a play, we looked back at ourselves and laughed.
The show, The Be(A)st of Taylor Mac, combined the best of the work he had been performing during the past eight years. The over-arching theme was escaping the Bubble: bubble of whiteness, bubble of contingency plans and the bubble of fear we had subjected ourselves to. The performance at all times was tinged with a hope that it might all be overcome, perhaps with a bit of finger-crossing. Mac hoped to expand our states of mind – not caring if we felt uncomfortable at times and also not making excuses about his subject matter, which veered from the explicitly political to the explicitly personal (in all senses of the word).
The show could be best expressed, as Mac said, as a “subversive, jukebox musical.” And so the show progressed as it had begun, a casual rollicking atmosphere of laughter with one clear star – a drag queen railing on a ukulele baring her heart and raging against a world that too often veers into the absurd and offensive and too often causes injustice without remorse.
After the first song “I need a contingency plan!” – a terrorist-epic hillbilly romp about all the ways that we cultivated and surrounded ourselves in fear after Sept. 11, 2001 – things went back and forth from the intensely personal. One hauntingly beautiful song concerned one of his friend’s sons being born while he had yet another unsatisfying hookup. Perhaps the most subversive element of Mac’s performance was how effortlessly it married politics with the personal, the explicit with the sentimental, high art with low art. His art was the essence of pastiche, an aesthetic made up of the interaction and the internal contradictions between competing styles.
One such example was a hilarious and touching song that juxtaposed a lesbian novel written by Lynne Cheney and a romance novel by Saddam Hussein, bringing them together in a heartfelt moment in Saddam’s execution. Mac was able to evoke these transcendental moments as often as he would our echoing guffaws, whether at his absurd drag persona or his touchingly awkward romantic anecdotes.
One of the show’s highlights was a monologue done from Mac’s imagined self in bed, wig off, clearly trying to masturbate under the sheet placed over him as he faced us, with his bald head exposing the state of drag-undress. He went through a brilliant stream-of-thought, starting with porn or old boyfriends, to new boyfriends, to his own insecurities, to a brutal dissection of what it means to be a young homosexual drag queen, to what it means to be an individual, back to porn.
His language was eloquent and simple, body hidden under the sheet, face breaking down every so often behind the makeup to show us the vulnerable individual squirming inside. Mac did something most actors fear the most: he shared not just his character but himself.
But when the character came out – it was also as exciting (if not as hilarious). Mac is an avid performer and his face often became that of a mask, hiding any teeth exposing a dark opening. Smiles became quotations of Greek tragedy, and sometimes paralleled the expression available only in static visual art and drawings.
Through a night of speeches, songs – all done only using the accompaniment of a lone ukulele – and personal histories and breakdowns, Mac shared in his performance the essence of what it means to entertain, while at the same time challenging not just the “bubble of preparation,” but perhaps also the purple tinted bubble we all have developed in this remote Berkshire town.