Taylor Mac is primarily known as a “downtown” playwright - that is, a playwright produced off-broadway and in more experimental and eccentric circles. Seeing one of their plays make it to a mainstream Broadway theatre is truly inspiring - they are the first genderqueer playwright to open a play on Broadway. Gary: A Sequel To Titus Andronicus is their Broadway playwriting debut, which above all gives me hope that I too someday can have a play open on Broadway.
If I had to explain Gary to a stranger who had never heard of it before, this is exactly what I’d tell them: Nathan Lane is Gary, a clown tasked with helping clean up all the bodies from the aftermath of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. Kristine Nielsen is no-nonsense maid Janice, who has to work with Gary on the clean-up process. (Nielsen, a frequent interpreter of the works of Taylor Mac, replaced Andrea Martin in this role a week before the show was set to begin previews, but from her performance, you can hardly believe the drolly acidic Ms. Martin was supposed to play this dour and tough character.) Julie White is Carol, a midwife who got her throat slit by Aaron the Moor after delivering and misplacing his baby. Art ensues. But that’s just a surface level description of this mad, marvelous play. Taylor Mac’s Broadway playwriting debut is a complex and tantalizingly bonkers mix of high- and low-brow comedy, camp aesthetics and acting choices, and dialogue that alternates between disgusting and beautiful.
What exactly is this play? When you sit down in the Booth and look down at the proscenium, you see a blood red curtain, a white marble floor spattered with blood in spots under the curtains, and the famed wolf of Rome watches over the proscenium in gold. So, it’s a sequel to Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s bloodiest play in which everyone of importance is dead by the end. What could that mean? We get a recap (in Shakespearean verse) of the events of Titus from Julie White’s frazzled, neurotic midwife Carol… as her neck constantly jets streams of blood into the front row. Fun times. When she concludes, a bombastic Danny Elfman score opens the show, the curtain rises and we are treated to Santo Loquasto’s gory and intricate set design. Hundreds of stuffed, naked “corpses” are piled up everywhere (the women and children were hidden beneath a sheet) and there’s blood and treasure and chaos everywhere. It’s excessive and all “too much” in every way - a hallmark of good camp.
Speaking of camp, now’s the time that national treasure Nathan Lane arrives on stage as Gary. Gary, you see, was a minor character in Shakespeare’s original Titus (a clown who delivers a message and a knife to a general in a blink-it’s-gone scene) and now he’s been promoted from clown to maid, tasked with cleaning up the piles of corpses from the aftermath. Gary at first thinks cleaning up the bodies could be a fun time and an honor, until his co-worker Janice shows up. Janice is hard-working and has little patience for Gary’s flights of fancy and just wants the bodies emptied of poop and blood and put away properly.
Gary at first has fun playing with the naked bodies he’s cutting up and draining of gas and fluids, but immediately tires of it when Janice gets fed up. Gary tells Janice of his dreams of being a Fool who speaks the truth in order to change the world. After some treasure-robbing shenanigans, Carol the midwife arrives from beneath the pile of corpses, presumed dead but quite alive and manic. She’s in distress the baby she delivered and misplaced could be dead.
Gary and Carol (and a begrudging-but-softening Janice) decide to clean up the mess they’ve inherited by making an artistic, spectacular Fooling with it. Using the bodies and wreckage and treasure around them, they’ll make a great entertaining show to bring joy and hope to the kingdom in ruins. This Fooling, as they call it, is when Gary takes a sharp turn into more absurd and surreal territory all in the sake of putting on a show and making art to bring us joy and truth in times of distress. Taylor Mac’s language gets more poetic (more textual references to Shakespeare’s original play) and truthful about the state of our modern world, while maintaining its zippy lowbrow (read: poop and farts) humor and wild, disgusting sight gags. (After this play closes there will never be this many fake penises on Broadway at one time.) Art ensues. The ending of the play is surprisingly poignant - Gary finds the baby of Aaron the Moor alive and wearing a shark costume, and the baby surviving the carnage is a testament to all the weird art we make and the hope creativity brings in messy times.
I am so glad I saw Gary. This cast is sublime. At one point Nathan flubbed a line and mispronounced a word his character would never mispronounce. The onstage trio corpsed simultaneously for a minute or two, the audience ate it up, then they just continued as if nothing odd happened. They are truly master class comedians. Taylor Mac’s script is challenging, but rewarding and hysterical and just the kind of bizarre I’ve come to expect from them. The costumes, set design, and tech are over the top and perfect. My only real quibble is that perhaps George C. Wolfe’s direction was a little too subtle at times. Nothing about Taylor Mac, even the quiet moments in their work, should be subtle.
All said, Gary is well worth your time if you can stomach the blood and guts. You’ll laugh and cry and laugh some more, and maybe think a little bit, too.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes.