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Even before the lushly designed curtain rises on Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, which opens Sunday night on Broadway (at the Booth Theatre, to Aug. 4), the fluids start shooting forth.
A woman appears and begins to spurt blood from her slashed neck. The blood flies out sporadically, and this looks a little precarious if you are in the front two rows. The woman, inevitably raspy of voice given her injury, muses on the nature of sequels and revenge.
Then the curtain rises on one of the great stage designs of this Broadway season. The sight of hundreds of human bodies immediately confronts the audience. They are piled right in front of us; life-size stuffed mannequins, with red splodges on them signifying wounds. Legs and arms and faces and heads and necks, all in a horrific, mad, limb-clashing, mashing pile-up.
The astonishing sight, designed by Santo Loquasto, looks as ridiculous as it does horrific. This is what playwright and performer Taylor Mac imagines as what happened after the end of Shakespeare’s bloody revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus. (Full disclosure: One of the play’s producers is Barry Diller, chairman of IAC, The Daily Beast’s parent company.)
Mac is most famous for the acclaimed 24-Decade History of Popular Music, in which, in a variety of guises, he performed one hour of music (really, spectacle) for each decade from 1776 to 2016. In Gary he imagines what the purpose of art can be in a desecrated society.
In this banqueting hall turned charnel house, there is the prosaically named Gary (Nathan Lane), a former clown now turned laborer, here to do some tidying up of bodies before the inauguration of a new leader the next day. “Bit more of them than I was expecting,” he says of the bodies. His voice is Cockney. Lane—orbiting in his brilliant way from shy to showman, naughty schoolboy to moral fulcrum—at first seems like a mischief-maker, bored on the job and up for fun.
The fourth wall stays permeable throughout; the actors stare out at us, puzzled at our applause. When Janice (Kristine Nielsen) enters, she responds to the applause with a “Yeah, yeah, yeah how ’bout a raise?” The modern world and classical world are linguistic neighbors here.
The job is miserable, one of funneling out fluids and gases out of bodies, which Lane makes into a gross-out mini-ballet, tapping gas out of a body like it’s a musical instrument.
The play, directed with an anarchic set of energies by George C. Wolfe, is a delirious collision of high and low, with he and Nielsen clambering over bodies, being careful not to mix up the poop and blood extraction tubes, and fishing out intestines from bodies. All we can see are men. The women and children are left covered.
Later, Gary wonders if moving all the men’s inert penises right to left could end all tragedy. It’s worth a try.
Echoes of Shakespeare’s original play drift in. Janice seems to have been in love with horribly mutilated Lavinia. Julie White’s Carol, whom we saw at the beginning, reappears, feverishly confessing her sense of culpability over the death of a “black baby” that she should have prevented. White is magnificently loopy, playing to the audience, smashing the fourth wall with all manner of mugging.
All of Gary is performed in a state of heightened hysteria, with bodies being walked over, thrown about, and—in the case of one handsome dead hunk—molested by Gary. This Broadway season’s most surreal tea party is set in motion, with a pie made of body parts; yes, it suddenly feels very Sweeney Todd.
Janice, whom Nielsen plays with a doughty impatience, is at first furious with the lack of respect shown to the bodies, until she emerges from the heap of bodies wearing golden robes and Saturnius’ crown. This transformation changes her; we soon realize, via beautiful soliloquy, the depth of her love for Lavinia.
Profundity and fart gags jumble into each other in Gary. Lane’s character is frustrated; he wants something else; to create a “fooling,” which he describes “an onslaught of ingenuity that’s a transformation of the calamity we got here. A sort of theatrical revenge on the Andronicus revenge. A comedy revenge to end all revenge. Well, not just a comedy. A sorta folly. No, a spectacle. Or a comedy folly that is a spectacle.”
Just wait to see his ambition achieved: Using a system of pulleys and ingenuity, the stage becomes a riot of movements and explosions, as if Busby Berkeley and H.G. Wells were on an acid-influenced mission in the Underworld. Real dancers-as-dead-bodies appear, a surprise on the night we were told later as we were handed their names: Collin Baja, Tom Berklund, Tislarm Bouie, Mark Junek, and Matty Oaks.
If this sounds a huge surreal flight of fancy, Mac has talked before about the inspiration of the works of Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. “I even have Gary say, ‘We’ve got to make this ridiculous!’” Mac told The New Yorker.
Gary is intended to have a heavy Trumpian resonance. “Right now, in our political system, we’re living in a kind of revenge tragedy,” Mac told The New Yorker. “We’re trapped in a cycle where conflict is created and escalated and then created again; we’re chasing sensation.”
As ridiculous it is, Gary is also about the importance of art, the insistence upon it as a mode of resistance to the death and corruption literally piled up around Lane’s character.
Janice’s fervent cleaning, her admonishment of Gary for being lackadaisical, eventually leads him to ask her why she is so focused on cleaning, “making it all nice and clean and great, again, even though it was never really nice and clean and great in the first place, because the massacre of it was always floating about, just under the surface, and all you’ve done is make it seem pleasant for the people making the mess.”
Gary is a farce, a piece of messy circus whose many tones and shades will likely divide audiences and critics. But there is nothing like it on Broadway, and that is to be welcomed. It is an argument for art, and a passionate call for resistance—a pie of clashing ingredients just as is served for tea in the play. All three characters make their own brave moves at the end to effect some kind of change.
The most horrific sound we hear come when the two women open the doors to hear the baying shouts and screams of the mob. Inside the room, as well as all the death, we are left with Gary's mad piece of art—and a sign of new life; and Gary has gone from slacker clown to committed freedom fighter.