Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Hamlet that stages the action of the play from the perspective of the prince’s childhood friends, Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus locates the drama in supporting characters. The eponymous Gary (Nathan Lane) is a clown who has been promoted to maid and dreams of one day becoming a fool: a role adored by Shakespeare and his clowns, Will Kemp and Robert Armin, the fool is paid to mock the powerful. Hamlet, in his speech to the players, warns against their tendency to interrupt the action: “And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though, in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.”
No artistic statement could be more antithetical to Mac’s own aesthetic, which revels in accident, digression, and the kind of low-brow humor that clowns are prone to. (For Mac, “Perfection is for assholes” is something of a professional credo.) Unlike Stoppard, then, who is interested solely in intellectual play, Mac’s gesture is egalitarian: with a pile of bodies in the banquet room, Mac wants to know, who cleans up? This is in line with his longstanding interest in counternarratives: Mac’s magnum opus, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, is a 24-hour drag show (sometimes done in four nights, sometimes in two, and once in a single marathon performance) that dedicates one hour to each decade of American popular music—and while he plays old standards like “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” his focus is usually on those who have been left out of the story, from members of Native American tribes to lesbians who nurtured the dying during the AIDS crisis. So the detritus of a Shakespearean tragedy holds natural appeal.
Gary, still reeling from his promotion, arrives onstage to greet a decidedly-less-excited-to-be-here Janice (Kristine Nielsen). Janice is tasked with explaining the process to Gary, and Mac leaves no unpleasant bodily function left unexplored. Once a corpse is removed from the pile—a truly breathtaking feat of set design by Santo Loquasto—it must be massaged to remove excess gas. “Ya might think you’re done with it at a certain point,” Janice deadpans, “but people always got more than ya want them to have.” Mac makes a veritable symphony out of flatulence. I haven’t even mentioned the siphoning of blood and feces. And yes, it requires suction by mouth.
Once these formalities are out of the way, Gary is free to let his imagination wander. He invents a new form of theater, a “fooling,” a sort of musical number involving dancing corpses and high kicking penises. With Carol (Julie White), a midwife who has run away from her involvement in the possible murder of a baby, Gary assembles the props and costumes from the wreckage—a move that is characteristic of Mac for its DIY spirit but one that also has unspoken political resonance, particularly when paired with the visible onstage carnage. By the end, the mood becomes somber and Gary turns reflective much in the tradition of Prospero and Puck. It is messy as hell and an indisputable work of genius.
There are, however, problems are with the production. While Lane, sporting a wall of hair, is a reliable clown, and while White is absolutely hysterical in her high-pitched RP, Nielsen tends her highlight her lines with unnecessary, almost pandering gestures—oversized eye-rolls and head-shakes abound—that don’t let the jokes speak for themselves. More important, however, is the pacing. For most of Gary‘s brief running time, mania prevails almost to the point of monotony. The actors aren’t given room to breathe until well into the second half, and the result is a sensory overload that doesn’t do justice to the language. I wish it had been slower; I wish we could have spent more time with these characters, particularly in their downtime. I can’t wait for the revival.
Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus runs through June 16th at the Booth Theatre. 222 W. 45th Street New York, NY. 1 hour 35 minutes. No intermission.