Menu

Essay

The American Voice: Judyism

In the opening moments of the show, an actress who introduces herself as “Time,” stuffed into a scrappy-glamorous, beautifully ornate hourglass dress, her head trapped inside a cuckoo clock, rails against the play we’re about to see: a love story between Bride and Groom that culminates in a wedding. “INSTITUTIONALIZED NARRATIVE!” Time cries, “This is not something to enjoy. It is ugly. Plastic. Is a plastic deck chair fun? No! It is tacky! This is the most base, poorly crafted, pulled together at the last minute, ready for mass consumption, demonstrative, manipulative, repetitive, oversexed, histrionic, reductive piece of crap known to mankind… Now I, we, are forced to play stock characters.”  

If you saw Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge (2009), this image is surely stamped in your brain. An audacious, five-hour extravaganza, this game-changing, genre-hopping event follows the story of a flower—the Lily, played by Mac—who falls in love with the play’s blushing bride.  Forbidden to pursue this union, the Lily embarks on a journey to dismantle theatrical norms, hijacking the story in hopes of creating a new narrative. As an event itself, Mac’s play fulfills the Lily’s quest, defying the ways we expect plays to behave, smashing Elizabethan verse drama and Japanese Noh together with ballet and the American musical to create something wholly new. Uprooting itself from the pot it’s been planted in, the Lily takes centerstage: “From now on it’s my story,” the flower pronounces. “All mine.”

You can’t really take stock of Taylor Mac’s work without considering the influence of Theatre of the Ridiculous, particularly Charles Ludlam, whose ghost seems to loom gaily over each entry. Fusing the modernist avant-garde with camp, commedia, and drag, Ludlam’s work is a self-conscious mix of high (literary) and low (pop) culture; a pastiche of classical influences repurposed to form a kind of anarchic, flamboyant pageantry that—emerging at a watershed moment for gay lib—became the first canonized queer theater movement in the U.S. But as he devoted himself to experimentation, recycling cultural detritus into a form that was immediate and utterly new, Ludlam’s aim went beyond just re-making theater; he aimed to re-direct our cultural imagination. Growing up on Long Island at a time when being gay meant being an outcast, he was now a man without a closet, and through his work he hoped to liberate his audiences from the old paradigm, to equalize us by reimagining the stories we tell.

For Mac, though, the entire notion of gender seems irrelevant, non-binary, an entirely fluid concept; his gender pronoun of choice, waggishly, is “judy.”

Yes, Mac stands on the shoulders of the Ridiculous, resurrecting their glittery dime-store aesthetic and humanistic vision, but only to broaden and transfigure the form into a richer, more radical instrument of satire and social commentary. Ludlam’s drag, for example, was a collage of iconic women, creating hyperbolized, “gender-fuck” interpretations of (most famously) Camille or Maria Callas, aimed to dismantle our notions of masculinity and femininity; and his version of Bluebeard (1970) reimagines that creepy anti-hero as a mad scientist hell-bent on creating a third gender which combines both sexes. For Mac, though, the entire notion of gender seems irrelevant, non-binary, an entirely fluid concept; his gender pronoun of choice, waggishly, is “judy.” Judy’s characters are wholly original inventions, and the drag is omnisexual, unhinged by any notion of gender. (Pointedly, the Lily is a flower, neither male nor female.) Driven instead by the sharp cultural criticism at work in the writing, judy’s drag fuses glamorous and grotesque, reflecting both the materialistic, established culture under attack and also the disfiguration it causes.

And where Ludlam’s comedic genius channeled the classical Clown type (entertainer, harlequin), drawing on his mastery of commedia stagecraft, Mac is more interested in playing The Fool. “The Fool is a perpetual outsider,” judy said in a 2008 interview. “A shaman. A queer. And a queer is not exclusively or merely a homosexual but, as [downtown performer] Penny Arcade says, a person who at an early age was ostracized by society to such a degree that she could never possibly ostracize another human being. The Fool brings an understanding of the social contract because she was born into it, but has the ability to release people from the social contract because she was rejected from it.”  Traditionally, The Fool sits to the side of our protagonist, lending insight to the play’s proceedings from the sidelines like a sort of clairvoyant peanut gallery, able to see beyond the imposed boundaries of a society. Mac puts this figure centerstage. “I am attempting to get The Fool back into the court,” judy continues, “because society is in need of her fools. If we are to break free of a compassionless policy that supports torture, oppression and greed, our leaders, our government officials and CEOs, our movers and shakers, and the average citizen, need to be reminded of the range of their humanity. The Fool is proof and a challenge to see that we are many.”

Mac’s 22-play anthology spans the last two decades and is a collection of audacious, jaw-dropping theatrical feats (and I wish I had enough space on this page to cite them all). The Face of Liberalism (2003), a one-judy show billed as “a mish-mash of original songs, parodies, stories, and mental illness,” played for six months in the basement of the Slide Bar on Bowery. Performed by The Lord of Misrule, Mac’s face painted as an American flag with thumbtacks spirit-gummed to judy’s jaw, this performance cross-examined the fear, jingoism, and xenophobia in our culture in the wake of 9/11. Red Tide Blooming (2006) was a musical extravaganza in which Mac played a green-skinned hermaphrodite named Olokun who, shunned by Suburban society, moves to the Big City in search of a community of freaks like itself. The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac (2008), a manic, stream-of-conscious solo performance, criticizes homogenization and our culture of fear while judy gleefully accompanies judyself on the ukulele. And, massive and anarchic, The Walk Across America for Mother Earth (2011) is a musical that centers on a motley group of environmental activists who escape “Real America” in hopes of establishing a nomadic utopia. 

On its surface, Hir is nothing like any of these plays: Mac’s not performing in it; no one’s in drag (in the traditional sense); the action is linear and climactic; and, for chrissakes, it’s set in a living room. But the seismic tension grinding underneath is profoundly aligned with his career-long war on traditional narratives, and in fact this might be judy’s most subversive play yet. “I believe homophobia, racism, and sexism (in the theater) often manifests itself through the championing of ‘Realism,’” judy said in a 2013 speech.  The entrance to Hir is typical enough: Isaac the prodigal son returns home to confront a household in disorder, so he goes about rebuilding what it was. But the “well-made” form Hir takes is a Trojan Horse, a familiar vessel designed to ambush our institutions from within. “What I was trying to do was write a eulogy for the kitchen-sink drama, as a metaphor for the old world orders that aren’t working anymore,” judy said in a 2014 American Theatre interview. Though Isaac does everything he can to hold on to the world he once knew, it’s no longer there. Mac continues, “Justin Vivian Bond, as Kiki, says in the Carnegie Hall show [Kiki and Herb Will Die for You], ‘I’ve been to your institutions! I’ve been to your learning facilities! I’ve been to your churches!’ Since I heard that, I thought about how I grew up in this conservative world—homogenous, suburban, what is often called ‘Real America.’ I went to the churches and I went to the learning facilities, so I learned that culture, and now I’ve broken out of it and am learning, in my adult life, a whole new way of living and being.” With no interest in or need for the dominant culture, Mac is building a new cultural narrative and community through judy's work: a queer space. And everyone is welcome.

Adam Greenfield
Associate Artistic Director