Just some unedited thoughts after Taylor Mac's glorious, uplifting show:
Taylor Mac makes my heart expand. His kindness is so genuine, and his love for everyone, including himself, and his absolute intolerance of the meanness of humankind makes me want to be as positive as he is. His last show here (The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac, in 2008), as wonderful as it was, felt a tad apologetic, but he's comfortable with "the oligarchy" now and willing to love them too. This show started with much more of a bang than that one, and although he's doing covers, he's not hiding at all, despite the glitter.
This is about the end of the world, and about David Bowie and Tiny Tim. The end of the world is nigh, so we should all deal with our issues. One of Taylor's issues is that comparison is violence. It's a minor issue or this would be a play (he has written a five-hour play, after all), but it's not a play, it's a cabaret. He starts with Armageddon songs by Bowie and Tiny Tim, but really most of the songs in the show are Armageddon songs. He takes a tangent into how many people have a tendency to compare their current lover to their last lover, but it felt a bit tacked on. He picked two couples from the audience and had them switch partners for the evening. This whole bit – at the beginning and at the end – felt tacked on, like maybe it was supposed to be tied closely in to his themes, but he got a bit lost tonight. It's largely off-the-cuff, so that's certainly not surprising. The brilliant thing about that is it enables Mac to make full use of his considerable wit and extroverted nature.
One surprising discovery in the show – to me, anyway, was that Taylor Mac has really got a fabulous voice. A big, grand musical theatre voice that can be soft and pretty or big and operatic. He says he's a traditionalist – he traces, both early and later, when he's giving credit where credit is due – back to the Greeks, and he's got a point. Realism is the weird shit, he says. I couldn't agree more. Ultimately, beyond the drag and the ethical challenges he poses, it's his voice that steals the show. It's a joy to listen to.
Mac spends a good bit of time talking about his own comparisons, which of course he doesn't like, because it belittles the person being compared, takes their personal agency away, in a sense. I found myself wondering how frequently I do that myself and vowing to watch carefully. Mac doesn't really like being compared to Lady Gaga because he did it first, but he does like being compared to Lady Chatterley, and he reads a bit from the book. "Ours is a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. . . We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen." Mac cleverly ties all this back to the end of the world.
Mac claims he wants to either kill the comparison (between himself and Bowie and Tiny Tim) or emerge at the end of the show as a David Bowie/Tiny Tim butterfly. As beautiful as that image is, it doesn't happen. He's all him, and he's Taylor Mac doing their songs and making them completely his, not channeling Bowie and Tiny Tim at all (although he does do some nice vocal imitation work very briefly). Turns out, Mac can also do a good William Shakespeare sonnet. He's got some acting chops.
We dream the culture forward, he says. I feel like I'm stealing all his best lines, but there are many of them, and none of them feel like cliches or easy platitudes. He makes you want to be his friend. He makes my heart expand.
It's difficult to describe Kneehigh Theatre's The Red Shoes. It's certainly not realism (later in the evening I would enthusiastically agree with Taylor Mac when he said there's too much realism in theatre), and it defies description. You can describe the story – it's their version of the fairy tale about a girl who becomes obsessed with a pair of red shoes that nearly kill her – but that does nothing to describe the show. They've been to Spoleto before – Don John and Tristan and Yseult were both big hits – but I think this may be my favorite of the three. Several of the cast members are returning to Charleston, and they retain the same hypnotic style that so intrigued audiences the first time around.
Company designer Bill Mitchell's spare set is familiar to those who've seen their previous shows, although this one was tighter and sparer. There is just a diagonal stage with a small arch of scaffolding at the back for MC Lady Lydia, and a spiral stair on one side. Folding doors beneath open out and close and were apparently designed to take a great deal of physical abuse. Doors set up as a screen in the rear of the space provide a sparely-used changing space. Mostly the actors remained onstage.
The audience sees the actors before the show begins, in the lobby playing music in their underwear. Then they walked the audience as if trying to figure out what space they suddenly found themselves in. The performance began with the actors washing their feet in washbasins on the edge of the stage. They immediately reminded me of Blue Man Group, with their openness, innocence and interest in their world and the effect they are having on the audience, and a gentle eagerness to please. They display an open willingness to participate in this world they don't quite understand, and eagerly compete to be chosen by Lady Lydia to play the various roles in the fairy tale.
Lady Lydia (Giles King) seems to be channeling Frank N. Furter, only without quite as much cynicism. He too seems quizzical about the events he witnesses, but presses on to tell the story nonetheless. As things get more and more out of control, Lady Lydia tries harder and harder to please the audience, including inserting a couple of magic tricks that confused me as to their dramaturgical purpose.
The Girl's (Patrycja Kujawska) willingness to follow the shoes makes sense in this world. She is pulled from one enticement to another, but always back to the shoes she loves so much. It is critical to the performance that her shoes are not pretty, feminine, dainty shoes, but clogs – shiny, to be sure, but shoes with heft and power, and capable of making a big noise in the world.
It is the performance style that makes this company work. All the actors evince an exquisite self-control. Spare, specific movements that nevertheless seem quite natural. Guileless. The chorus members don't speak until they are given characters, and the Girl never speaks at all except to scream while dancing, or when she is a singing chorus member. Her face throughout the show is a mixture of confusion and despair and triumph and joy, all without pushing too far. Her dance was a marvel to behold – arms and legs flailing gracefully, the shoes adding stomp and fear to what might otherwise be a joyful dance celebrating life.
As always with Kneehigh Theatre, there is an ingenious manipulation of the space and elements of their world. The red shoes on fishing poles, the brooms as crutches, the circle of felt that becomes six hats, all are testaments to the power of live theatre to spur imagination. The costumes are merely illustrative, a piece here and there to identify each character. I wondered why the soldier the girl falls in love with was the most realistic of them all, with a full soldier's uniform. Was it because he almost brought the girl a real happiness? I never satisfactorily answered that question for myself, but regardless, the Girl left him for the shoes anyway.
It's hard to take your eyes off Kujawska. She's so compelling. Like the shoes, she made me want to dance, which is part of the power of the show. You understand her pull to the shoes – an obsession, and the desire to dance despite the consequences, because they make you feel that pull yourself. You want to dance with abandon. I felt myself mirroring their willingness to participate, even though, or perhaps because, I was in the front row. I wondered if they would ask me to dance and was surprisingly willing to do so. I wanted to have time to absorb the show, but had to rush up the street for the 10:00 performance of Taylor Mac. What a fantastic evening!
Life is made from stories. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the stories we tell others, the stories we hear. Those we believe and don't believe, and those we aren't sure about.
Stories are the backbone of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan, and the backbone of the lives of its characters. Billy Craven, known on the island of Inishmaan as Cripple Billy, despite his growing rejection of the name, queries those he knows for stories of his past, especially of his parents, who drowned when he was a baby. JohnnyPateen lives on the bounty of his stories, telling them for payment of food and calling himself a newsman. What is told and not told, believed and not believed, structures the lives of people without much else to do in McDonagh's desolate Irish village.
As presented by Druid Theatre, McDonagh's story, and those of his characters, are painted in vivid, almost desperate colors, standing out in relief against the dank, dark set and ripped, pieced costumes. The characters' stories, by turns trivial and fearsome, become critical, flares shot up to help them find themselves in the dark.
JohnnyPateenMike lives most obviously through his stories, trading them for self-respect, food, and relevance. As played by Dermot Crowley, Johnny vacillates between being the town gossip and the town's Homer, seemingly unaware of the ways that his stories have consequences and beget misery, even while they keep the town's internal plot moving along. Crowley invests Johnny with a grandiose sense of entitlement that makes him oddly sympathetic, even as he spills secrets and extorts favors. He narrates his world with such a sense of glee that it's difficult to imagine how the town would function without him. His repartee with his mother (if one can call the constant exchange of insults and death wishes repartee), produced with such deadpan delivery, illustrates the cruelty of this hard peasant life, even as his unexpected revelations of kindness hint at the deeper stories we have yet to learn. When he delivers the latest news, about the local appearance of an American film crew and their plan to hire actors, all the characters light up, delighted to hear about something more exciting than feuding animals and who has been kissing whom.
The stories have the highest stakes for Billy, who longs to know the true story of his past and his parents, and to make a story for himself that involves something other than ridicule and a lonely future. He makes up a story to get him to the nearby island of Inishmore, where the film crew is preparing a Hollywood version of the story of the Aran Islands people. Tadhg Murphy's Billy seems perpetually - if only metaphorically - at sea, perplexed by the cruelty constantly heaped upon him, and deep in thought about all the possible alternatives to this life. Murphy creates in Billy a dim, but undying sense of hope, that carries him through his many painful discoveries, and carries the audience with him. You can't help but feel a pull – for him, with him – and a desire to see him pull his shuffling feet to a better place. He yearns for health, both physical and mental, and notes heartbreakingly, that "there's plenty round here just as crippled as me, but it's not on the outside it shows."
Ultimately, however, the underlying story of the town, beneath all the petty stories of meanness, is one of acceptance. Brother and sister Bartley and Slippy Helen, played by Laurence Kinlan and Clare Dunne with great fierceness and joy, are physically and emotionally cruel, and genuinely confused at the hurt they bring. Kinlan and Dunne, however, provide tantalizing glimpses of the tender spots on the hearts of the pair, as in a touching moment when Bartley turns back, after an exceptionally cruel barb, to ask Billy, quite sympathetically, if he's okay because he looks "a bit sad."
McDonagh's dialogue moves slowly and repetitively, with characters repeating their own thoughts – "not a word, not a word, not a word" – and full sentences of others, with a deliberateness and stilted delivery that clearly illustrates the emotional and intellectual poverty of their world while hinting at unknown depths of soul. It is a technique that McDonagh has used to great effect in the past (repetitiveness in his stunning play The Pillowman is used to force a squirming audience to confront the horrors presented to them in measured, painfully dispensed drops of information) and which works here to crystallize the disconnect between people, even as they cry out for communication. The actors of Druid Theatre deliver their repetitions with great respect, honoring the importance of each iteration of a line, allowing the story to grow slowly and organically. The story of Billy Craven, the Cripple of Inishmaan, is of a search for acceptance. That's a story we can all understand, even those of us who are better able than Billy to hide to crippled parts of ourselves.
The curtain call at the end of this preview performance was absent the traditional Spoleto standing ovation that seems to show up indiscriminately, often as if the audience were directing it more at themselves for sitting through a challenging piece than at the performers. But the applause was loud and genuine and perhaps reflected the somberness of the play. Or perhaps they were still caught up in the story.
Welcome back, Patrick! I'll look forward to seeing him frantically running between performances, but having a blast the whole time.
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