Taylor Mac is strange, wonderful and important

Taylor Mac, shown in costume for the first three decades of his ‘24-decade History of Popular Music,’ proves flamboyant and entertaining. Photo courtesy of The Wall Street Journal.
Taylor Mac, shown in costume for the first three decades of his ‘24-decade History of Popular Music,’ proves flamboyant and entertaining. Photo courtesy of The Wall Street Journal.

Taylor Mac commands a fantastic range – from dignifiedly sumptuous to unabashedly brash – in vocal style, self-presentation, anecdotal discourse, political-historical commentary and artistic philosophy. The disparate, anachronistic sounds and images effervescing at Mac’s performance on Saturday night in the ’62 Center reverberated into dizzying spectacle, a prismatic wonder that was sprawling yet somehow precisely designed and bitingly real.

The overarching theme of Saturday’s performance (which is one-eighth of the visionary 24-hour monument-in-progress, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music) is community. At the beginning of the evening, decked in white makeup, gloves and heels, streaming with shining ribbons from a two-foot tall wig and projecting a mass of string pennants on semi-hula hoops, Mac (who uses the pronoun “judy”) asked how our imperfection might build, heal, foster and support community. One answer may involve the drag accessories (hats and boas) that Mac’s “dandy minions” passed out to the audience. Another solution came in the form of a ritual sacrifice in which the audience members wiggled all of their fairy energy into one member while Mac sang a seething and sultry “Amazing Grace.” This, the first song of the show (or, as Mac would have it, “radical fairy realness ritual”), portends both the raw musical force and the participatory performative antics (and periodic swigs of wine) that would define the next three hours.

The first of these three hours (decades) concerns the founding of America, which, according to Mac’s interpretations of popular songs of 1776-1785, involved hating Congress, debating “Common Sense,” admiring black hair and pining for a place outside of America. Indeed, the audience reenacted these five core “values” in a chaotic, confetti-filled ecstasy before the hour was through. Between, and sometimes during, Mac’s alternately grandiose and future-folksy Founding Fatherz Bop, history collided with the immediate present, like in Mac’s celebration of Antonin Scalia’s death. Oh, and did I mention that several community members sat on stage knitting throughout the evening? The first decade concluded with a bare duet of piercing emotional clarity between Mac and Machine Dazzle, the show’s brash and ostentatious costume designer.

With the music of 1786-1795, Mac wove a convoluted tale of female liberation from biblical guilt and heterosexuality. Clad in a green and pink dress with Styrofoam heads to match and a white bridal veil, Mac assumed multiple parts to render the plot twists of this fantasy with suspicion and swing. Kusika made a guest appearance at the Satuday show as the symbol of the universally-vilified relative outsider, injecting a dose of delightful surprise and expanding the formal boundaries of the show. At the end of the decade, everyone ate an apple because we don’t need to hate ourselves for something that happened (or didn’t) so long ago.

In the last hour, the MainStage transformed into a turn-of-the-19th-century queer pub, presided over by the character of Crazy Jane, an awesome but ultimately vulnerable queen floating a halo of wine corks who filled the remaining time with period drinking songs. There was even a beer pong segment, a near-hailstorm of missed aim and missed innocence.

Before long, Mac strips off judy’s barrel dress festooned with silver snakes and glittery tongues, down to judy’s underwear adorned with one huge pink dahlia. In an act of opportunity indistinguishable from defiance, Mac takes flight upon a cherry picker downstage right, soaring with climactic melody and radiating pride in the fabulousness of judy’s own naked skin – but not before being interrupted by a temperance choir composed of students.

The temperance choir is another symbolic spectacle connecting the 18th century and the present. It’s the colonialist imposition of prescribed norms. It’s the theater snob’s disapproval of identifying performer and audience. It’s the intrusion of the oppressor into safe expressive spaces. And this uncomfortable, unwelcome presence (not the strip) is what exposes Mac’s vulnerability, the self-doubts hidden under the confidently preposterous costumes about audience and inclusivity and boundaries. Unsure of judy’s role in mainstream culture, Mac forms a shield of prose postulating about queer performance and history, condensing around the aphoristic attitude that “your narrative is not mine.” And with this education about the barriers between communities, Mac brought the night to a close, bridging the crazy and the normal, drag and temperance choir, kindling hope for connection in the face of mutual disintegration.

At the beginning of the show, Mac acknowledged that the shared experience of an immersive, ridiculous, high-concept aesthetic, peppered with Nancy Pelosi references and pierogi-stuffed “assholes,” won’t mean the same thing for all people, and indeed it does seem to differentiate along plenty of lines, such as class and sexuality. As laid out in judy’s 2013 manifesto, Mac’s performance involves consequence, imperfection and surprise, but this answers no questions about its impact, value or place. I think that’s the point.

Mac will premiere acts 3 and 4 of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in a 24-hour marathon performance on April 9.

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