From Taylor Mac’s Bark of Millions.
Photo: Julieta Cervantes
In the first spring of the pandemic, a friend sent me the poet CAConrad’s essay “Sin Bug.” In it, Conrad, reflecting on the ravages of a different epidemic, remembers “a potluck dinner in the early ’90s” where “there were a few straight people who asked what they could do to help.”
I jumped in and told them to call their families, bosses, landlords, friends, everyone they knew, and come out of the closet as queer. They were shocked and said, “But we’re not queer!” [My friend] said, “Look, you asked what you can do, and you have been told!” If every straight ally came out as queer, we could put an end to the violence in our community overnight. Does it mean I want to be straight? No, it means I want straight people to be queer, and queer is political, queer is against racism, misogyny, and transphobia. Queer is also anti-war, and if you are not, queer will show up to your party and fuck things up! Queer wants this world beautiful, and it is not truly beautiful unless everyone has the room we all need to make it so!
There’s a radical, tough-minded generosity here that punches right through the wall of our moment’s hypersensitivity around appropriation. Presumably, Conrad was talking not to out-and-out bigots but to well-meaning liberal folks who would never dream of taking an identity that wasn’t theirs. But part of Conrad’s point is that that very language, the idea that one is stealing something, is rooted in an ethos of ownership and fear. They’re not suggesting that straight folks wave a rainbow flag for cred; they’re calling for a widespread act of ethical courage, a shift in how we define and live our values. If “queer is political,” then queer knows that property is theft, that the truly revolutionary act is to resist possessiveness, scarcity thinking, and exclusion. Queer can fuck up a party, yes, but it’s even better at throwing one.
This celebratory defiance of us-and-them mentality revels at the center of Taylor Mac and Matt Ray’s Bark of Millions. Mac — whose pronoun is “judy” and who is known for creating pieces as ravishing in spectacle as they are epic in duration — playfully calls the new show “a reverse conversion therapy session.” “We want to turn you queer!” judy announces early in the evening, joyously extending the same challenge, the same gift, as CAConrad. Bark of Millions, Mac says with judy’s ever-present wink, is “party-length”: It’s roughly four hours long, and the audience is encouraged to leave and return at will. There’s no intermission, but the lobby bar stays open, and as people start to loosen up, there’s a steady stream of them up and down the aisles of BAM’s Harvey Theater. Up onstage, Mac (who wrote lyrics and co-directs with Niegel Smith and choreographer Faye Driscoll), Ray (who wrote the music), and Mac’s frequent collaborator, the designer Machine Dazzle (here also a performer), join an ensemble of 20 singers, movers, and musicians to present a rock-opera-song cycle — or, as the show’s subtitle puts it, “A Parade Trance Extravaganza for the Living Liberty of the Deviant Theme.” “I’ve never seen a parade trance extravaganza for the living liberty of the deviant theme,” Mac adds in a program note, “so I’ve no context to measure our success.”
That may sound tongue-in-cheek, but it’s only half a joke: Mac strives for a kind of inimitable maximalism — glittering, geyserlike performances that seem to call for an equally lavish and original outpouring of language to describe them. Inside their capacious, sensual worlds — which can leave you a little headachy and speechless, and not in a bad way — “success” starts to feel like a limp, ineffectual word, a word with decidedly unqueer politics. Did I sometimes wish that Bark of Millions were being staged more like a true concert, with the option for the audience to stand — able to mill and flow and osmose each other’s energy with a bit more freedom than the Harvey’s auditorium seats provide? Yes. Did I find it a little tricky, especially in the first hour or so, to make out Mac’s lyrics inside the vibrant pulse of Ray’s music, and did I every so often pine for supertitles? Sure. But when you’re being swept up in a tidal wave, you have to unclench and let it carry you. When you stumble out of a wild party at 3 a.m., are you remembering the spilled drinks?
“Hidden in water / I make myself / By uttering a name,” sings Mac, dressed by Machine Dazzle in a many-splendored bloom of pink and green — a psychedelic peony — as the show begins. “Atum, Temu, Tem, Ra.” Ray’s low, dark piano chords take us back to the primordial soup, as the murmuring ensemble invokes the first god of the Egyptians, the self-created deity called Atum. Atum emerged from, as Mac writes in the program, “an infinite expanse of darkness and directionless water,” and was said to have done it by speaking their own name. “What’s more queer than that?” Mac asks. Bark of Millions comprises 55 songs, each one inspired by a queer ancestor — though these people (or gods, as the case may be) aren’t meant to be figures of worship. (“Some” Mac writes, “are real assholes.”) Rather, they’re providing a source for poetic contemplation, a queer terroir out of which new forms of life can grow. Shame is doffed like a dowdy jacket; the body is unequivocally embraced. Some versions of the Atum myth say that the genderqueer god created new life through masturbation, and the performers sing triumphantly of “rubbing out a River Nile.”
Those performers are a supergroup of musical might and sheer magnetism. Though Mac, both glamorous and serene, is the show’s center, judy ebbs and flows out of the spotlight: Bark of Millions feels like a truly collective endeavor. In that way, though their aesthetics differ vastly, Mac and the magnificent composer and performer Heather Christian share an approach to art-making: They are often physically present in their work, grounding the whole astonishing event. While they are hypnotic as performers and undeniable as visionaries, they never overshadow their collaborators but instead illuminate and elevate them. There are plenty of highs over the course of Bark of Millions’ four hours — from the thunder-voiced Thornetta Davis’s irresistible delivery of a stomping, bluesy number dedicated to William Dorsey Swann, to El Beh’s simply staged and beautifully sung meditation on Chavela Vargas, to a quietly gorgeous ballad for the mythical Greek shepherd Prosymnus sung by the diminutive, mesmerizing Stephen Quinn, their bejeweled eyes and gold-glitter-caked mustache flashing in the stage lights. In a gloriously subversive frolic called “La Femminucce,” Jack Fuller, Sean Donovan, and the British Nigerian cabaret star Le Gateau Chocolat go full Fellini-meets-Puccini; in delightful tribute to Herman Melville’s thinly veiled passion for Nathaniel Hawthorne, the ensemble assembles a ragtag whaling ship, complete with paper spyglass, mast, and, of course, whale.
That ship can’t help but put us in mind of this parade trance extravaganza’s title. Bark of Millions refers to the ship that, according to the myth, Atum nightly pilots through the heavens in order to bring the sun back to humankind each morning. But of course, as the company sings, a bark is also “a shout and a begging to be seen.” Furthermore, it’s the costume worn by trees — armor, yes, but flexible, breathing, growing, entwined in the mycelium that connects us all. In Machine Dazzle’s splendid profusions of sequins, tulle, feathers, and lace, the performers often feel like voluptuous plants or marvelous new species of birds — but the show also sees them strip layer after layer away, becoming more and more vulnerable and recognizably human. By the end, many stand semi-naked before us, transported, breathing heavy, their very impressive makeup only just starting to run. They have made a world in their own image, and that world is generous, expansive, bawdy, beautiful. This specific party might be over, but the invitation is, and will remain, open.
There is — understandably, in this brutal and precarious moment, marked by seemingly daily occurrences of the “unprecedented” — a deep fascination with ancestry permeating much of our art. It’s a multilayered fixation: With vast (and often vastly powerful) sections of the population blind to history, or in denial of it, or even engaged in an active war to make sure it stays buried, it’s artists who grab the shovels and start digging, in search of both the sacred and the profane. Theater in recent months has felt intensely archaeological. How did we get here? Where did we come from? What, and whom — in our relentlessly linear, presentist mind-set — are we forgetting?
It may initially seem strange to put The Following Evening, the new show by 600 Highwaymen (the theatermakers Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone) in the same sentence as Bark of Millions. Where the latter is explosive and superabundant, the former is tender and contained — barely over an hour in length, just four bodies in street clothes and a few simple items on a small, largely unadorned stage. But that stage is every bit as charged with feeling, with curiosity and reflection and profound heartache, as Taylor Mac’s. Browde and Silverstone are also dancing with their antecedents, but the marvelous twist is that here, the dance is literal. As two married experimental-theater artists who work together under a company banner and are entering their 40s, they’ve created a show for two married experimental-theater artists who are headed into their 80s.
From The Following Evening, at the Perelman Performing Arts Center.
Photo: Maria Baranova
The extraordinary devisers and performers Ellen Maddow and Paul Zimet — known collaboratively, along with Tina Shepard, as Talking Band — have been working in downtown New York theater for nearly as long as Browde and Silverstone have been alive. They were all (Maddow, Zimet, and Shepard) members of Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater, which now graces the syllabi for college courses in the American avant garde — along with the Living Theatre, the Wooster Group, the Performance Group, and Ontological-Hysteric, among other legends. These are the people, the companies, the epoch, that millennial theater-makers look back on with awe, often with mingled reverence and envy. Rent was so cheap! The Village was, you know, actually the Village, man. Surely it was easier back then.
The Following Evening gently dismantles this kind of tempting, simplistic nostalgia. With wry benevolence, it shines a light on the way in which every artist — no matter when, where, how old, or part of what moment or movement — cycles between elation and doubt, boundless enthusiastic conviction and the abyss. “All I’ve ever done is this one thing in my life,” says Maddow. “I’d like to think it was noble, not foolish.” As she and Zimet crisscross the stage in a series of simple abstract movements — a deconstructed dance — they banter and reminisce, their voices minimally inflected and unsentimental, as if they’re in their own kitchen the day after a show, sizing up the performance. The piece’s title evokes this kind of creative eternal return: You make the thing, you share the thing, and the following evening you do it again, and then again, and again — and the evening after all that, when the thing is gone, you wonder if it meant anything.
“We made a life — our whole life — in the theater,” says Zimet, but “the plays are made entirely of snow.” Maddow bustles through, eschewing any sense of drippy pathos with her brisk, almost chipper delivery: “Here we are. Again again again again, starting again starting again. You work so hard to make it great. And was it great? Who knows.” We see her younger self, and Zimet’s, inside and through them, moving into the sixth-floor loft on Mercer Street, on top of a garment factory, where they still live today. We hear them chatting about their neighbors and fretting over their work (“And after all that the Times doesn’t come. And so now it’s like did it even happen.”) and testing new ideas and, sometimes, really getting on each other’s nerves. “But why?” Zimet asks when Maddow walks in with a brown paper bag on her head and declares that this is how she thinks she should make her entrance. “Some things go unsaid!” she barks at him. “JUST BECAUSE. I don’t want everything to be up for debate or able to be changed or tweaked. I don’t want feedback. I don’t want notes, I just want to have ideas and follow them!” (The exchange is already wonderful, and it’s rendered brilliant when Maddow, in the middle of shouting at her partner, also shouts at their dog: “Ava, go lie down!”)
“How amazing,” says Zimet, wondering at a memory of an actor singing “Danny Boy” after putting drops in his eyes. “Real sadness from false tears.” That slippery border between the real and the artificial is where The Following Evening lives and breathes: Just when we’ve spent long enough with Maddow and Zimet to be really immersed in their dialogue, to have begun to take them at their word and to see all this as memoir, the house lights pop up and Browde and Silverstone enter the stage. They’ve got some notes. They want Zimet to try a line differently. They want Maddow to move her arm in a different way. They’re both self-effacing and authoritative — directors at work. The play becomes its own rehearsal, its structure, its very un-reality exposed. Gradually, the lines between rehearsal and performance — and between directors and performers — blur. All four artists are dancing together, carefully studying one another’s movements, seeking, it seems, for a kind of discovery in unison. If our bodies do the same thing, what will pass between us? What will we learn of each other?
Browde and Silverstone have recently had a child, and, as the group re-creates a moment in rehearsal before the baby’s birth, Zimet turns to Browde: “You’ll be 40,” he says. “I’ll be 80.” “And the baby will be zero,” she replies. He pauses and smiles lightly. “I just got incredibly jealous. You guys have so much life ahead of you.” “Oh. Isn’t that funny?” says Browde, not happy, not sad. “I don’t feel any of that.”
There’s a beautiful irony to The Following Evening, in that from its anti-romanticism, its embrace of the chaos and the mystery, emerges a deep hopefulness. Yes, you could once rent an apartment in Soho for a hundred bucks, but, as Zimet muses, “it isn’t so clear-cut.” Late in the show, Avi Amon’s subtly stirring original music swells over the performers as they navigate back and forth across the stage, becoming almost inaudible in the crescendo. “Hello? Hello? Is there anybody? Anybody? Hello?” they call out repeatedly. Hamlet — as much a play about theater as about Danish royalty — begins with the same overwhelming question: Who’s there? For artists of ephemera, whose life work is so much snow, it is the question. If “all of it goes, all of it vanishes,” then, well, then what?
Then, 600 Highwaymen and Talking Band suggest, “you do it again.” You keep wondering, you keep working, you experiment with making an entrance while wearing a paper bag. And if you’re curious and generous and brave, somebody is there. And no age was the golden age and no moment is the last moment and only the simplest advice is ever of any use: “Shit takes time,” says Zimet. “Life is long. Walk more.”
Bark of Millions is at BAM through February 10.
The Following Evening is at PAC-NYC through February 18.