Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Young Ladies Of.../The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler

The (tenuous) topic of the day: Overplaying.

It hit me sitting in the almost empty Center On Halsted Wednesday night that maybe Taylor Mac isn't as widely known as I assumed. In fact, I don't know where it was that I first discovered Mac. I think it may have been from one of the NY bloggers, which, come to think of it, is a horrible judge of widespread popularity (that's a comment on bloggers in general, not just the NYers). Nevertheless, I was surprised that my excitement at About Face pulling in Taylor Mac for a full run was not remotely shared by the rest of Chicago.

Mac is a self-proclaimed pastiche artist, performing in deconstructed drag, all heavy makeup and sparkles and glitter and bras as thongs and so on and so forth. His latest show, The Young Ladies Of..., is a love/hate letter to his deceased Texas redneck father and, by association, to all those who are diametrically opposed to the sorts of artists who perform in deconstructed drag, all heavy makeup and sparkles and glitter and bras as thongs. Mac, it goes without saying, is the type that overplays.

The world Mac imbues onstage is gigantic in tactic -- the ukulele playing, the puppetry, the seemingly endless (and apparently ever-growing) unopened envelope setpieces, the Taylor Mac. Everything is much larger than it need be, except for the revelations and realizations. These peek out from Mac's overly-glittered eyes, sinking home that the division between us (whoever us may be) and them (ditto) is tragic because it is insurmountable because it is unknowable. And when he leads the audience in a chorus of "What's the use of wond'rin?" from Carousel, it's silly, because it's Taylor Mac in dirty white dress and Shirley Temple wig leading a sing along. And then it's beautiful, because we are all one and the same with Taylor Mac in our grasping for answers we'll never find. And then it's tragic, because... well, because we never will find the answers to gulf the gap between us and others, despite the fact that that is all we really want.

But then, just as all hope is lost, as the audience continues to question the use of wond'rin, now solo, the next revelation worms its way out from Mac's affable but slightly weary visage. The use of wond'rin, his sparkling eyes share, is that even if we can't meet halfway, both sides wandering unfamiliarly trying to find halfway is where the glory of humanity lies. The tragic and the comedic collide in the person who has thrown everything comfortable to the side in hopes that the uncomfortable is where the undiscovered bridge between us lies. And it is probable that we will never find it. But we find something, and that's closer than we were.

It's a tremendously delicate discovery. A tiny flash of light that means nothing to anyone not looking for it. That it lies couched in an explosion of charm and shine, the fantastic and the overplayed, makes it all the more precious. And it leaves Chicago on Monday. You should probably go.


I dig Dog & Pony's rag 'n bone aesthetic. I really, really dig it. But the approach lacks a certain sense of... perhaps subtlety is the right word? It's the same sort of plane as Taylor Mac, where the nuance becomes a little diamond in the rough. And it has rarely been more of a gem than in D&P's As Told By The Vivian Girls last spring. But The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler just can't quite find it, and not for lack of trying.

A large part of the problem is that the entire production is withering away in the cavernous Viaduct main stage. It's a great space -- if you need a cavern. Hedda Gabler doesn't and this production seems horribly out of place in the theatre. The set is drowing in unused space, the canned noise is distant, and the cast forces themselves to play wide and deep and still come up short.

Co-directors Devin de Mayo and Daniel Stermer do their best to push the cast to inflate to meet the space, but it comes at a cost. (A cost called overplaying -- you see how I [tenuously] tie this all together?) For every Matthew Sherbach, who steals most every scene he's in with loads of humor and a little pathos, and Jeannette Blackwell, whose Mammy is time and time again more earnest and human than any Mammy should comfortably be, there is a Laura Mahler or a Mildred Langford, making the Viaduct even more cavernous by incessantly chewing what little scenery there is.

But the biggest void is an inability to provide the audience their role. This is a script fully aware of its own fiction, yet, aside from a couple of key 'speak to the audience' moments (and even during a couple of them), the cast plays at their characters as if they were going about their lives unobserved when the crux of the play's conflict is that the only lives they can lead are the ones that we (and that's a very direct 'we', no abstraction here) continue to observe. It's too much motive, not enough meta.

And maybe that's the real connection with Taylor Mac; maybe overplaying is only the means to a similar end in this instance. The end being audience discovery: both the discovery of the nature of the audience by the performers and the audience's discovery of their own implicitness in the piece.

What's the use of wond'rin? It's that even in the act of wond'rin, we are changing the world directly in front of our eyes. Taylor Mac let us do so. Dog & Pony told us we were and tried to move forward anyway.


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