under the radar

Taylor Mac’s 24-Hour Concert Does Important Cultural Work

Taylor Mac’s “24-Decade History of Popular Music,” a concert event that devotes an hour per decade of American history, has been called ‘ambitious’ and ‘epic.’ But after watching the three-decade preview being performed through next weekend at New York Live Arts, I decided that those words do not do justice to the cultural goals of this theatrical piece. There’s a sensationalized and egocentric tone about “ambitious.” The work becomes about the artist, about his/her career aspirations, and the imagined work s/he may or may not invest in. It suggests that the work isn’t necessary or warranted– that the artist has gone above and beyond what is called for, or what they are usually capable of. It ignores or minimizes the goal of the piece.

That’s not to say that Mac, music director Matt Ray, backup vocalist Amber Gray (I knew she looked familiar!), and their band aren’t creating something rigorous or difficult. Putting together three-hours of performance material is hard enough, let alone twenty-four. But the focus of this event is not Mac’s stamina as a performer, or how long we the audience will fare with our sleeping bags and toiletries. The concert is an act of historiographical rewriting. It examines how American history has been passed down to us and what type of narrative it depicts. It asks us to imagine other narratives, ones that are left out of traditional education. Mac relates the inspiration for the piece in performance, starting with his childhood in Stockton, California, where homosexuality, queerness, and gay history were never part of his family discourse or institutional learning. He discusses the first time he ever witnessed being part of a group of openly gay men at an AIDS walk and the overwhelming sense of belonging he felt surrounded by men who were themselves or were with others deteriorated by the disease. How has our country existed for two and a half centuries with queerness and only in the past few decades made steps to acknowledge its presence? How do we revise our perception of the American experience, dating back to 1776, to include rather than ignore or alienate the gay experience? Mac’s concert legitimately performs this revision. It’s not ambitious. It’s merited. It’s called for. And it’s absolutely essential.

Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Mac’s joy of performing emanates from his sparkling persona, usually covered in even more sparkling attire designed by longtime costume collaborator Machine Dazzle. The performance I attended celebrated music from 1900-1930. The first decade largely focused on music from immigrant Jewish tenement life. Mac enters dressed a glittery, conservative black dress bedecked with a large Star of David and a oversized velvety cheetah-print shtreimel hat held up by an umbrella handle. He briefly describes the flux of Jewish immigration into the United States as a result of pogroms in Eastern Europe and imitates living conditions in the tenements by inviting the entire audience to sit onstage. Audience participation is used pointedly, working the discomfort and falseness of the interacting into the narrative he constructs. The 1910’s bring a slight change of pace, introducing an era of romanticism and heroism that culminates in World War I’s bitter disillusionment. The 1910’s and 1920’s segments approach the war from a queer perspective– women on the domestic front and male soldiers abroad find strength in each other’s shared experiences and develop relationships that mold new definitions for love in America.

Photo by Sara Krulwich/NYT

Mac’s narration functions best when he relates historical facts, personal observations, and deconstructive criticism. Sometimes his fictional set-ups, like that of two veterans confronting an emotional rift in their relationship, fall into cliches and I wished the stories were a little more fully developed, if not substituted with more historical re-tellings or experiential insight.  However, Mac is always entertaining, witty, and wonderfully human. Never haranguing and always taking delight in the theater experience, his purpose is to leave you a little happier and a little more learned than when you came in.

NYLA‘s performances of 24-Decade History of Popular Music are sold out (wait list available), but keep an eye out for future performances from these and other decades, as well as the ultimate 24-hour marathon to be performed in 2016.

Under the Radar 2014: The Record

600 Highwaymen’s The Record has earned rave reviews from the New York Times and also capped off my night of theater-binging. Billed as ‘part theater, part dance, part group hallucination – vivid human assembly on an epic scale,’ the piece brings together 45 people who interact with each other for 61 minutes on a bare wooden stage topped with a billowing white sheet.

I hesitate to call the 45 people in the show ‘actors’ or ‘dancers’ because they’re really neither. Even the show page’s description of them as ‘strangers’ feels wrong. As creators Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone explain in a talk-back session, they cast the show using friends and co-workers, some of whom also brought their families along. Also, the people in the show are decidedly not dancers. One is a heavily pregnant woman, another an elderly man who kind of reminded me of Filch from the Harry Potter, and there are several children. It really is a ‘record’ of people of different ages, sizes, races, and class. And there isn’t really much in the way of dance moves either. There’s plenty of running, standing, posing, and hand motions, and probably the most coordinated moment of the piece is when the actors line up in two lines, face each other, and run quickly towards each other.

The cast of the Record

This is part of the reason why I left feeling like I had been somewhat misled by The Record‘s description. I expected either of two things: 1) this would be a movement-filled dance piece about modern life and they way we interact with each other or 2) the 45 people would literally be ‘strangers,’ having just met before the show, and somehow they’d be able to make a comprehensive from close to no experience or training (which Silverstone explained in the talk-back was the original inspiration for the show).

The Record does have elements of the first expectation. The show’s movement mimics the way that we often move about our daily lives. We rush from point to point, constantly surrounded by people, often making little marks on their lives (a service transaction between customer and employee, for example, or taking a seat on the subway that someone else really wanted), but we hardly ever acknowledge each other’s existence. We continue to act independently. And sometimes our paths are intercepted by someone else, if only briefly. The Record aims to display this type of movement, but also to defy it. The cast continuously stop in their tracks to stare out at the audience, making us aware of each other, acknowledging out presence, and provoking us into some type of forged community.

But while the idea behind The Record is provocative, I hardly felt engaged with the piece. There was little to keep me excited or interested in the piece once its aim was clear. The only unifying part of the show was the overwhelming communal feeling from the audience (or at least the people around) that was hoping for something more. And while Christopher Isherwood’s sublime experience of the show, that it opens us to the awareness that we share our lives with millions of people, makes sense to me, I can’t say it was similarly felt.

Of course, you, dear reader, may see for yourself and catch The Record before UTR ends on Sunday.

Under the Radar: LIFE AND TIMES

We round off our UTR coverage with the most unique and most ambitious play of the the 2013 lineup: Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times Marathon, a ten-hour play comprised of four episodes taken verbatim from one director’s phone call conversation with a cast member to recount her life story. And yes, it starts with day one.

Oh Dear Lord, these tracksuits.


Life and Times is truly a celebration of the everyday, mundane life. The first energetic, musical episode retracing the subject’s first 6 (ish) years of life, is just simply exuberant. It rejoices in the trivial details and reminiscences of childhood, whether it be the calming energy of a father, the tauntings of a brother, playing hooky from swim lessons, or a mean substitute teacher who causes one to wet one’s pants. What is it about one person’s personal, small experiences, which may seem so unimportant or too subjective to be inconsequential, that makes everyone suddenly moved to connect and remember their own memories, even if they are vastly different from those of the subject? It doesn’t make sense. But it happens in Life and Times. Never do you resentfully wish that someone with a more interesting life was interviewed, some kind of celebrity or something. Interesting is not at stake here. Neither is celebrity. We’re here to see the greatness, the adventure, in the everyday.

When we say verbatim, we mean verbatim. Every “um,” “erm,” “so,” “like,” etc. is reproduced, even emphasized at times. Sometimes an “um” is given its own note, harmony, and crescendo. It’s all part of the poetry of our subject’s (and our own) speech. It’s fantastic. I love my “ums” and “likes” now! In many ways, the marathon is also a case study in theatrical adaptation and conventions. I’d like to hear if some people felt like there were two voices in the piece- that of the woman on the phone generously telling her life story (imagined in our heads from reading the captions) and that of the artists. For me, the woman on the phone speaks quickly, nervously, a distance of years between her and her memories. The artists speak immediately, affectionately, deliberately, and slowly. The difference between the two illuminates what we do when do make a narrative out of someone’s real-life experiences.

I also endorse captioned performances like those in Life and Times for EVERY SHOW EVER becauseimnotagoodlistener

Episodes 1 and 2 are balanced in their joy and sincerity, striking a genuine chord with the audience. Episodes 3 and 4, on the other hand, are much messier (starkly different from the careful musical performances of 1 and 2). It feels a lot less fluid, a lot less reflective, and a lot more tedious. Yes, the “murder mystery” Agatha Christie-style shtick is fun and lends itself well to the subject’s more confessional teenage years. But the same plodding mood, the same melodramatic parodies for 2 and a half hours? Perhaps throw in some more genre-benders for 3 & 4, you know, instead of waiting for 5 and 6? Maybe some farce, some social manners, some Arthur Miller, some Harold Pinter, some Sam Beckett? You’ve got all of theater history to choose from.

Also, I hate to say this, but just because we’re taking the subject’s conversation verbatim doesn’t mean we must include ALL of it, or even do it chronologically. I could not wait to hear our subject’s memories on some more mature experiences-her first heartbreak, her first interview, maybe even her work as an artist. Alas, episode 4 ends at age 18.  Word on the street is that Nature Theater plans to make over a dozen episodes to bring forth all the pieces of their subject’s memories. Because editing is nowhere to be found on their mission statement.

Episodes 3 and 4. Where’s Poirot when you need him?


So um Life and Times attempts to capture the idiosyncrasies of, like, human speech… and turn oral storytelling into, um, a theatrical event.And it’s brilliant. UTR’s plays experiment with the idea of what theatre is and can be. This production is one of the main events of the Under the Radar Festival, and for good reason. Life and Times is huge both in length and in concept. The four episodes of Life and Times currently span about ten hours as a marathon (with more to come). And it’s mission to relate a telephone conversation to the audience–verbatim–is no easy task. The crafting of dialogue in the theatre is a language of its own. It has to establish the dramatic conflict  and drive the story.

At first, Life and Times doesn’t seem to have any narrative arc, as the novelty of the “real speech” takes time getting used to. The cast doesn’t shy away from the inconsistent vulgarities of human speech–they revel in them. But in those “mistakes” come brilliance. The hesitation before an embarrassing childhood memory. The nervous laughter hiding the fear of an abusive father. The unexpected interruptions where she wonders–and we all wonder–if our stories are actually worth being told.The constant musicality of Episodes 1 and 2 were welcome, as they help give the narrative an emotional life. I was also taken with the “anti-choreography” of awkward limbs and grace-less plies that illustrated everything from solitude to sexual desire. Episodes 3 and 4 can use more development, as the English cozy mystery genre sometimes muted the actors’ performances.

Life and Times was my first experience with marathon theatre, and it was a fun one. The intermissions were accompanied by a dinner and dessert break (featuring awesome salted brownies). It made me think of the possibilities of theatre being an all-day event, where the audience could respond even more to the stories brought to them. I also wondered if the company members could utilize those intermissions in a more creative way, particularly with the ensemble members. Even after almost half-a-day of Life and Times, I still wanted more, and I look forward to future episodes, wacky genres, and “ums.”

To be continued…


A visit to a a family-style fusion restaurant leaves the narrator of this one-woman show obsessed with the question of whether it is possible to have a “neutral” narrative in America? “Neutral” in this context means free from any experience filtered through the lens of race or gender. She searches for the answer to this question for an indeterminate amount of time looking for one person who can claim to have a neutral life.

I don’t think I’m quite spoiling anything by saying that she finds none. No one can be freed of their circumstances, nor do we perhaps want them to be. Anyone with a “neutral” narrative is really just an empty shell of a person with no stake in their actions, waiting to be filled by outer forces, whether it be an over-demanding job, a love interest, or hey, an obsession with whether America has a “neutral” history. By the end of the show, we realize that our narrator is completely devoid of any self. While she is represented in this production by a young, black, professional, black woman (an excellent April Matthis), she could really be anyone. There is no mention of her race or gender, no reference to where she comes from or what defines her, not even her name. The monologue could just as easily been played by a white middle aged male. Her emptiness functions as the bare stage for our discussion on race and gender.

Overall, the show brings great insight into the function of race and gender in contemporary America. Some of the writing felt a little misguided, like the few opening spewing cliches about “change” and what a fickle force of nature it is– I don’t see “change” as a dominant theme of the play, nor something marginally explored. The ending, however, is jarring, demanding the audience to assess to what extent we produce assumptions of “neutrality”  in our lives.

Other UTR reviews: C’est Du Chinois  and 2 Dimensional Life of Her.


It’s a BIG week here at Letters From the Mezz. We started 2013 off right by booking tickets to some of the best theater of the season, starting off with the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater. This festival collects the best, new theater from around the world and puts it on display every mid-January. Kate and I got press tickets (Yes, PRESS tickets! We’re legit!) to several of the plays in the festival so that we can keep y’all up to date with our ever-evolving art form.

C’est Du Chinois is one of UTR’s first offerings. One of its attractions is its genre-defying structure. Part Mandarin lesson, part family narrative, part language observation, part reflection on the modern immigrant, it’s a play that, well, is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

Maybe I was misrepresenting the play by calling it “part Mandarin lesson.” Essentially, it’s ALL Mandarin lesson. As the play starts, one of the Public’s ushers call forward the Lao/Yu family, who nervously scuttle on stage carrying several large picnic bags. A lot of them. The family is comprised of a man and his mother, the man’s wife and her father, and their teenage son. The only English spoken in the entire play comes from the random audience member chosen to read aloud an introduction to the Lao/Yu family. We learn that the Lao/Yu family are recent immigrants to New York and have lived here for about 8 months. They are selling their “Ni-hao” DVDs, which teach Mandarin. What we are about to watch is just a taste of what is contained in the DVDs.

Thus, the lesson begin. The first half of the show is largely an acquirement of some basic Mandarin vocabulary. Don’t worry, the lessons are lively and often humorous. Plus, those large picnic bags are full of props, including dozens (maybe hundreds) of beer cans and Hershey bars, used to signify the Mandarin word for “a lot”/”very,” and also quite an appropriate symbol for American acculturation. What you should be worrying about is remembering what you’ve learned. It’ll be important when we get to some of the more personal matters of the family.

We learn, for example, that the grandfather used to be a professional actor and is now a gambling addict. That his daughter is has just found out that she is pregnant, and is the only one unhappy about it. That her mother-in-law is thrilled about the baby, but not too happy about her daughter-in-law. In many ways, while we are acquiring the language to understand the family’s relationships, they are also acquiring the language to express their malcontent. For example, one of the first words we learn is the word for “New York” and “very good.” Nearly every character has his/her turn at expressing something along the lines of “New York is VERY good!” (double-thumbs-up gesture included). By the end of the play, however, we’ve learn the words for fear, anger, and tears. Now, the teenage son corrects the illusions of the play’s beginnings, throwing off the veil of the family’s difficult immigrant experience.

We watch this family acquire the expression to reveal their experiences, just as we have acquired the language to understand them. While their expression is simple, their frustrations, fears, and disillusions are resonant. Perhaps this is why the play’s ending is one of the most uncomfortable endings I’ve ever sat through. The family throw off their personal experiences for the sake of selling their DVDs, setting up a stand right at the exit of the theater so that each theatregoer must pass under their stoic yet so desperate glare as they leave the theater. They stand by as everyone in the audience looks around, waiting for some kind of signal that the play is over. No bows? No clean “the end”? Nope. Out you awkwardly.

I love how this technique, as well as the play’s muddled opening, blurs the boundaries of the play’s reality. They reminds us that these character’s experiences are not confined to the construction of the play, but rather surround us. Some audience members bought the DVD for a price of $5.99. I really wonder if they got what they paid for.

Other UTR reviews: Hollow Roots  and 2 Dimensional Life of Her.

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