What’s so funny about mounds of bloody, dismembered, and spurting bodies, flatulence and excrement, necrophilia, and penises – lots and lots of penises? That depends on your sense of humor. Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus – a no-holds-barred comic follow-up to Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, commissioned by HERE and written during Mac’s residency there – infuses the historicizing theme with gallows, toilet, and raunchy humor to deliver a serious and timely message about power taken to violent and vengeful extremes, who gets to clean up the mess, and how to change the world for the better. Directed by five-time Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe, the world-premiere production at Broadway’s Booth Theatre is an eccentric combination of high-brow references and low-brow laughs that has something to offend everyone, a whole lot to provoke thought, and a refreshingly uplifting moral.
First performed in 1594, The Bard’s original Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, drawn from a variety of literary sources, is set in the fictionalized world of ancient Rome, amidst a barbarous bloodbath of political control, murder, rape, cannibalism, and revenge. In Mac’s sequel, it’s now 400 AD, the Roman Empire is in decline, and though the battles are over, the clean-up in the aftermath of the atrocities of Titus’s reign must be done. Gary and Janice, a lowly clown and maidservant, are entrusted with the job of preparing and storing the casualties of the wholesale slaughter in a holding room piled high with corpses, with some unexpected help from Carol, a midwife who endured having her throat slashed and now suffers from survivor’s guilt.
Mac’s writing pays homage to its source with a dazzling synthesis of rhyming verse, prose, and blank verse in iambic pentameter, and a theme that references both Shakespeare’s play and ancient history, along with Vaudevillian-style clowning (a nod to the recurrent motif of the wise fool in The Bard’s canon) and the bawdiness inherent in many of his comedies. While it’s not absolutely necessary to have a full command of the work of Shakespeare – the characters in Gary recount the main events and personages in Titus Andronicus – it certainly helps, in order to catch all of the show’s witty mentions and rich allusions, and to appreciate Mac’s mastery.
Wolfe directs with a rapid-fire pace, an eye on the outrageous, and a keen penetration of the underlying personal message of taking responsibility, turning hopelessness into hope, aspiring to live your best life no matter what your station, and bringing an end to tragedy by creating art and embracing laughter. The superb cast – starring Nathan Lane as Gary, Kristine Nielsen as Janice, and Julie White as Carol – delivers it all (from the Cockney accents to present-day slang, from direct-address asides to the audacious “puppetry of the carcasses”) with perfect meter and comedic flair. All three flawlessly (and shamelessly!) capture the raucousness of the play, the essence and development of their “quirky” characters, and the relevance of the story for our time and for all times, in over-the-top conversations, confrontations, and self-reflections, within the context of the ridiculous situations, absurdist shock value, and Mac’s invented theatrical genre of “fooling.”
The production’s artistic design is integral to its success, and it is fully in keeping with the graphic content of the narrative. Santo Loquasto’s set creates a classicizing environment, including a Roman-style post-and-lintel proscenium and stage curtain that opens to reveal the outlandish scene behind, with dramatic lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. The hair and wig design (by Campbell Young Associates) and costumes by Ann Roth evoke an apropos mash-up of the fashions of antiquity with English music-hall entertainments, while world-class clown Bill Irwin provides the zany movement, Danny Elfman the original mood music, and Dan Moses Schreier the sounds that accompany the uproarious action.
Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus is decidedly not for everyone, but it is guaranteed to elicit strong reactions and opinions, from finding it hilarious to thinking it’s thoroughly disgusting. You’ll either love it or hate it, but either way, you will be talking about it, and that’s obviously what Taylor Mac intended with this provocative new work. I loved it.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.