There are no guarantees of success when attempting to stage ambitious new work. If one were seeking proof that the theater can be a fickle muse and that past accomplishment is no insurance against present failure, one need only look at the veritable “dream team” assembled for playwright/performance artist Taylor Mac’s Broadway debut “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus.”
Mac (who uses the term “judy” as a gender pronoun) is a winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant, and anyone who experienced judy’s “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” may rightly regard it as one of the defining cultural experiences of their lives. Given the range and probity of judy’s many preoccupations and the acuity with which judy exposes the surreal contradictions of contemporary life, it is clear that Mac’s is a singular creative voice that should be heard on Broadway. And it is our responsibility and privilege to pay attention.
George C. Wolfe whose place in the pantheon of legendary American theater directors does not require recapitulation is the director. The irreplaceable clown and actor Bill Irwin is credited with movement. Storied composer Danny Elfman supplied original music — though there didn’t seem to be much of it. And the design team of Santo Loquasto (set), Ann Roth (costumes), Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting) could not be bettered — though I question whether the set and props actually assisted the storytelling.
Now, to ask the unfortunate question — how did these titans manage to collectively conspire to give us this deeply disappointing production?
The new play is set in the final years of the Roman Empire, and begins where Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” ends, with most of the characters dismembered and future governance uncertain. One assumes that all parallels to current global political chaos are entirely intentional, as we are told early on that “democracy can fade into autocracy.” (A note of reassurance to potential audiences, no working familiarity with Shakespeare’s play is necessary. This is a good thing because attempting to make sense of what you are watching in the moment is going to require all your attention.)
The Bard’s historical drama, known for its Grand Guignol gore and occasional lapses in logic, is sometimes staged to heighten the comedy latent in the violence. In “Gary,” Mac seems determined to capitalize on this idea and take it as far as possible by using the mechanics of burlesque and black comedy and bringing them to grotesque extremes. Mac’s ire here is provoked not by the folly of Emperors but by the predicament of the hapless underclass, especially those who are forced to clean up the detritus left behind by the people in power. So Mac centers the hallucinatory “Gary” on three minor characters from the original Shakespeare, a clown, a maid and a midwife, who speak in a mixture of rhyming couplets and blank verse (which is sometimes both smart and funny), mixed up with graphic scatological humor.
The inimitable Nathan Lane plays Gary, the clown. His remarkable gifts greatly assist the few moments in the play that land successfully. Lane is, of course, a master of the comic aside, of the priceless reaction, of “rubber band” physical bravura. No matter how outrageously far the direction asks him to reach for comic effect, Lane maintains control. Even more importantly, Lane ensures we feel empathy for Gary’s aspirations, and his character’s increasingly fervent desire to further good in the world. If any player could embody and convey the moments of pathos that are meant to conclude the play, it would be Lane. Sadly, I was able to feel for the actor but not his character.
This is a major shortcoming because one suspects that Gary’s evolution from dunderhead to aspiring savior of the world is meant to be the dramatic spine of the play. (I only infer this because a clear through line for the piece is not fully achieved. Mac may want us challenged and repelled in equal measure, but I won’t willingly sign on to being confused.)
The plot kicks off with Gary, back at the deposed emperor’s palace after having talked his way out of his own execution. He has been deputized to clean the banqueting hall that is now being used as storage for human remains — the horrific casualties of recent battles, rendered here as life-size fabric dolls piled into a center stage mountain. (In addition to the central mountain, separated limbs and decapitated heads still wearing bits and pieces of military regalia decorate every nook and cranny of the set, leaving little playing space for the actors.) Gary seems to regard this opportunity as a significant elevation of his former freelance circumstances, which is perhaps a wry comment from the playwright on the lack of value placed on the artist in society. Anyway, Gary shows up for his first shift in this gender-bending assignment (maids are usually women in Shakespeare’s plays, at least) full of good cheer.
When he discovers that his friend Janice (Kristine Nielsen) is running the janitorial show, he initially looks forward to working on the cleanup. Janice starts out with determined “Mrs. Lovett-like” efficiency. She has figured out how to remain under the radar of the oppressive regime du jour and just wants to get on with completing the current assignment.
Originally the role of Janice was to be played by Andrea Martin, who withdrew from the production because of injury. Nielsen, whose broad comedic stylings differ from the quirky subtleties of Martin, moved into the part. Her performance, while undoubtedly skilled, is unfortunately so large and unrelentingly shrill that it was exhausting both to listen to and to watch.
But after an introductory lesson from Janice, Gary quickly sours on the gruesome task of stripping and preparing the bodies for burial. We are told cleaning up the massacre is meant to happen quickly because the hall is needed to host the inauguration of a new ruler. Woes betide the laggards who fail therefore in their appointed task. But despite the supposed urgency of the mission, the play devotes a lot of stage business to the excretion of bodily fluids and flatulent gases from the corpses (not to mention a preoccupation with the corpses’ penises, which figure into a plot point later). Some laughed, I did not. There was nothing fresh or especially inventive in the comic shtick on offer.
Disillusioned with mopping up and sensing possibilities in the newly found emotional freedom brought on by his recent near-death experience, Gary now yearns to become a “Fool,” a role he sees both as speaking truth to power and an “antidote to tragedy.” This ambition expands into his vision for a new genre of cathartic and theatrical art which he dubs “the fooling” (a notion that initially perturbs Janice). Bizarrely, as the competing objectives of Gary and Janice escalated, I was put in mind of a 21st-century deconstructed “Odd Couple.” Yes, Neil Simon’s Oscar and Felix, because Gary seems determined to exist in and perpetuate mess, while Janice is constantly being thwarted in her attempts to maintain some semblance of order and normalcy.
The third member of this trio of mismatched fellows is Carol, the midwife played by a literally screeching Julie White. (It was comforting to note a vocal coach among the Playbill credits because how the actors will manage to maintain their performances at this ferocious decibel is hard to imagine. It is also hard to understand why Wolfe is so desperate to pitch his actors’ performances to these extremes.) After treating us to an introductory prologue whilst stanching projectile blood spurting from her slashed throat — perhaps that’s an explanation for her compromised voice — Carol is writhing in guilt for not saving the life of an illegitimate black child born to the regal lover of Aaron the Moor (from Shakespeare’s “Titus”). Quite what this has to do with anything else we have so far encountered, I could not begin to explain, though the fate of the child takes on significance near the end of the play.
This play has the marks of an unfinished “mind dump,” and even when the mind in question is of the caliber of Taylor Mac’s, it takes more to architect a coherent work of theater. I would sign on for any and every breaking of the rules of form and structure if only I felt included in the new conventions on offer. That responsibility of inclusion, and here, for the uneasiness of opposing tone and style, lies with Wolfe as the director. If we were meant merely to squirm as we guiltily guffawed, and to treat the entire exercise as an outrageous bacchanal, then we needed more help finding our way to an authentic place that would justify the almost sentimental, faux inspirational ending.
At one point in the action of the play, Gary spends time enrolling his comrades (including the numerous bodies on display) in actualizing “the fooling.” The idea seems to be that art can heal the world and that underlying truths will eventually prevail. What a fine notion. Would that “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus” had pulled off that feat. Instead, we’ll have to wait for the next “fooling.”
“Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus” opened at the Booth Theatre on Sun., April 21, 2019.
Creative: Written by Taylor Mac; Original Music by Danny Elfman; Directed by George C. Wolfe; Movement by Bill Irwin; Scenic Design by Santo Loquasto; Costume Design by Ann Roth; Lighting Design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier.
Producers: Scott Rudin, Barry Diller, Eli Bush, Eric Falkenstein, Suzanne Grant, No Guarantees, Universal Theatrical Group, James L. Nederlander, Columbia Live Stage, The John Gore Organization, Spring Sirkin, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Jamie deRoy, Wendy Federman, Barbara Manocherian, Al Nocciolino, Bruce Robert Harris & Jack W. Batman and Adam Rodner.
Cast: Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen, Julie White.