Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Flower Power: "The Lily's Revenge" at Magic Theatre

First things first: Don't be scared, it's not really five hours. It's four hours and fifteen minutes, and Magic Theatre has just slashed ticket prices for the final dozen performances, so what are you waiting for? Don't read my blog post on The Lily's Revenge -- run out and experience it for yourself!
Seriously, there are so many things I want to say about this amazing piece of theater, but I also realize that one reason I loved it so much is that I had almost no idea what to expect and was thus continually surprised. You don't even get a playbill until after the show is over; additionally, the playbill doesn't have a lot of extraneous material in it -- no interview with Taylor Mac or essay(s) about elements of the play. I've seen many plays that aren't very challenging or hard to understand, but whose playbills are nonetheless filled with explanatory essays. Whereas The Lily's Revenge is a five-act, four-hour allegorical fantasia about marriage, environmentalism, community, narrative, meta-theatre, and more -- and the creators have faith that the play can speak for itself. This feels almost radical.

But then, nearly everything about The Lily's Revenge is radical and nervy and surprising and filled with an insane amount of faith and trust. It is a massive undertaking: it has something for everyone, but, because it's so overwhelming/overstuffed, it's also guaranteed to include elements that put you off. Nonetheless, the result is incredibly inspiring on multiple levels. When was the last time you saw a play that began with the gutsy pronouncement "This play could very well last for the rest of your life!" and then actually lived up to that promise? At least, it's been three days since I saw The Lily's Revenge, and I still can't stop thinking about it, and I know it will reverberate for me for a long time to come.

But what's it about, anyway? A stripped-down plot description would be something like: "A walking, talking Lily seeks to become a human so that he can marry the Bride, and gets caught up in a war between the God of Nostalgia and the God of the Here-and-Now." New York theater artist Taylor Mac is the show's creator, writer, and star performer. He acts, mugs, sings, plays the ukulele, exudes charisma, looks good in a tuxedo and even better in his green-glitter-lipped, flower-collared Lily drag. The Lily, as written, is kind of a diva, and Mac is good at grabbing the spotlight, but also good at stepping back and letting his 30+ collaborators have their time to shine.

All of the actors perform with impressive commitment, energy, and passion at every moment; I don't know how they keep it up over the course of 255 minutes, six shows a week. You get the sense that all of the performers and, indeed, all of the artistic collaborators truly believe in what they're doing -- if anyone was even slightly skeptical, this show would topple like a house of cards. But everyone has willingly put all their eggs in Taylor Mac's basket (big kudos to the Magic Theatre for taking this risk!) and they know that this gamble will pay off.

For The Lily's Revenge isn't "just" a play -- it's an exercise in building community between artists and audience. There are moments of audience participation throughout the play and during all three intermissions. The first intermission is a communal dinner, the second is a cast-and-audience dance party. I spent most of the third intermission in line for the restroom, but nonetheless got serenaded by a Lilac as I waited! The intermissions are delightful palate-cleansers; plus, they make you more involved in the show and thus, more receptive to what it has to say.

And The Lily's Revenge has got a lot on its mind. It's a play about marriage, and it has a very queer sensibility, but it's not explicitly about gay marriage. It's a plea for love but also for thoughtfulness -- for deeply caring, in every sense of the word. There's also the big theme about Nostalgia vs. the Here-and-Now; how nostalgia, in the form of outmoded cultural narratives, can be used as a tool of stasis or oppression.

The play is so dense that I am still realizing things about its craftsmanship and structure. For instance, in Act I, the characters frequently name-drop Hegel. In the car on the way home, I realized the reason for this: Hegel's big idea was thesis-antithesis-synthesis, and that's the way The Lily's Revenge is structured. I also got a lot out of reading what critics have said about the play's New York and San Francisco productions. I love this quote from Backstage: "A surprising but suddenly obvious connection lands just right: Both theater and marriage are essentially pure, intimate relationships that have only been corrupted into institutions."

The structure of the play even mirrors the central conflict between nostalgia and the here-and-now. The Lily's Revenge comes down pretty clearly on the side of living in the present (that's probably another reason for the audience participation and community-building), but Taylor Mac also calls himself a "pastiche artist." And a love of pastiche means a love of old-fashioned or passé artistic genres -- that is, a love of nostalgia. A play about anthropomorphic flowers is automatically nostalgic; reminiscent of children's theater, and of works of art from the Victorian era -- think of the talking flowers in Alice in Wonderland.

For a pastiche artist, there are two challenges: to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts, and to create something that speaks to the present moment rather than being mired in the past. The Lily's Revenge, in its beautiful and crazy way, overcomes both these hurdles. Like a flower, it has its roots sunk deep into the earth, and a spirit that blossoms toward the light.

Image 1: Lily (Taylor Mac) has his diva moment, surrounded by the Flower Girls; photo by Jennifer Reiley.
Image 2: The Great Longing (Mollena Williams) tries to shut Lily up; photo by Daniel Nicolletta.

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