We know that staying healthy means eating a balanced diet. But even though we learned the food pyramid, we end up eating the same things. Variety takes work and change is scary. Well, if your theatrical diet is full of musical mush and Neil Simon sameness, get on down – underground – to the Undermain for The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac. Taylor Mac puts on a show. He calls it a play. Some call it performance art. I call it nutrition. Food for the soul.
They say an easy way to make sure you have a balanced meal is to get as many colors on your plate as possible. Well, it doesn’t get any more colorful than Taylor Mac. Looking like a thrift store exploded (or in his imagining: a “drag bomb”) Taylor Mac’s one-man show blends stories and songs from the last nine years of his work. The stories go on too long but he revels deliciously in the punch line. Never has a smirk been smirkier or a wry smile wryer. And just when you’ve had enough of these sometimes vulgar sometimes touching anecdotes, the songs start. Some are political and some are poetical but all are personal. Taylor’s songs are poetry and whimsy and pain. They are performed with such authority and nuance that the audience gives up there last reservation and willingly submits. In most plays, you look for the main character to take a journey and make a change. In this show, Taylor doesn’t journey beyond the taped out circle on the floor. The changing belongs to us and the journey is to Taylor.
Taylor is as far from a precise female impersonation as you can get. This is more gender blurring than blending. In a decidedly tacky tidal wave of ill-fitting garments his costumes practically provide the set. This is not a one-man show where the performer disappears into role after role proving their theatrical mettle. The subject of the show is Taylor and his travails. This violet doesn’t shrink. In fact, in one of his plays the hero is a lily that pulls itself out of its pot in order to star in the show. You get the idea. To be sure there are moments of repulsion in this evening of song and dress, Sturm und Drang, story and drag, but they are the honest tribulations of the narrator’s life. Like a great blues song you sing to make yourself feel better, these stories have traded the trappings of woe for the trappings of wow!
There is a dangerous intimacy and courageous honesty underneath the sequins and Mylar. Halfway through the show, you begin to wonder if drag may be the only sensible reaction to a life such as Taylor’s. At two-thirds, you begin to wonder if it’s the only sensible reaction to anyone’s. As we go along this odyssey of oddity we discover the similarity in our experiences, and the pleasure of the performance is the feeling we get when we meet ourselves in someone else. The pain of loneliness weighed against the sting of heartbreak; the absurdity of fatalism against the naiveté of hope. At the end, the heroic choice is to endure. In spite of his travails he marshals on and we end up being charmed by his nobility. Paradoxically this disguise of make-up and costume ends up revealing him.
By comparison, this tiny counter-cultural evening of artifice is chock full of human authenticity whereas the Dallas Theater Center’s Give It Up!’s pop cultural effulgence is a slick and barren expanse of commercial gloss. It’s the difference between a juicy, fresh watermelon on a hot summer’s day and watermelon flavored candy. Authentic versus artificial, communal versus commercial, rind versus wrapper.
But don’t worry as performance art goes, this is very tame. You will not be assaulted. This is not me telling you to eat your vegetables. It’s me telling you about a great little restaurant. And I guarantee, you won’t be hungry fifteen minutes later. In fact, I’ll never think about chicken the same way again.