Theater Review: Taylor Mac Wrestles American History to the Ground in 240 Songs

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Photo: Teddy Wolff

When Taylor Mac first emerges through the power-chord fog of a 24-piece orchestra at St. Ann’s Warehouse, he is dressed in an outfit that looks as if Marie Antoinette, having survived an explosion in a party store, was then left out in the rain for centuries. Glammed up with fantastical makeup but nearly naked beneath a tattered farthingale and panniers by the designer Machine Dazzle, he is an anti-macho post-Colonial diva, a monument to ambiguity on every possible axis. For the next three hours, or many more if you choose to attend the entirety of his 24-Decade History of Popular Music, he will explore those axes, and grind them, ten years at a time.

By now, you probably know about the structure of this epochal work. It consists of 24 one-hour concerts, each focusing on one decade of American life and culture, from 1776 to 2016. The concerts are grouped into eight three-decade evenings, the first of which (1776 to 1806) I caught last night in what served as the project’s unofficial opening after five years of development. The rest of the evenings are scheduled, with a day or two off between each, through October 3. Then, starting at noon on October 8 and running until noon the next day, Mac and his army of instrumentalists, choirs, dancers, puppeteers, special guests, plus 26 “Dandy Minions” who assist miscellaneously, will somehow push through the entire sequence of 240 years in a psychotic, sleep-deprived, no-intermission marathon. Along the way, 240 songs, carefully matched to the era of their first popularity, will be sung, if his voice holds out.

Or even if it doesn’t. This is, as Mac observed last night, not regular theater. It’s not even a regular concert, he said; it’s a performance-art concert, the “genius” difference being that there is no possibility of failure. “If you love it, I succeed. If you hate it, I succeed.” True enough, the 24-Decade History cannot be judged by traditional criteria of coherence, unity, proficiency, catharsis, and mimesis. If it can be judged at all, it is only by the standards Mac, who says “perfection is for assholes,” implicitly sets for it: Is it fun? Is it pretty? Does it create community? More profoundly, does it serve as a useful reminder (not a lesson, for Mac assumes we all know this) that our country’s history is a cycle of alienation, co-optation, and integration, of tearing down while building up, ad infinitum?

Yes, it does all those things, even as it threatens at times to overspill its rigorous protective carapace. With 700 seats crammed into every corner of the St. Ann’s space, sight lines get obscured; the lighting is understandably under-rehearsed; the narrative thread of the story sometimes misses a stitch. (Did I mention that there are a handful of volunteer knitters onstage, calmly working at their afghans and scarves?) Transitions are particularly muddy: The shrinking of the band by one player per decade — so that eventually only one will be left — is notably marked after the first hour but thereafter barely observable. And when Mac is not onstage you have almost no idea where to look. Luckily, he is seldom not onstage; though he is very generous with his colleagues, name-checking (among many others) his guitarist, harpist, tuba player, and a Dandy Minion named Sister Rose Mary Chicken, there is no mistaking whose show this is. And why would one expect him to shrink into the background, now that he finally gets to bring his outré stage persona — loving and snarly and radically ecumenical — from the bars and dives he started in to St. Ann’s, the pinnacle of the popular upper-middlebrow avant-garde?

For Mac is basically performing a nightclub act in a very special club, one built around and for the gifts of people not usually welcome, except as freaks, in mainstream settings. To this end, he treats the audience partly as his co-conspirator and partly as his bitch; there is much enforced “volunteerism” here. (Last night, some or all audience members, including Mac’s sometime co-star Mandy Patinkin, were commanded to stand and dance, put their heads on a neighbor’s lap for patting, eat an apple, throw ping-pong balls at a temperance choir, and wear items of drag passed out by the Dandy Minions “so I have something pretty to look at, too.”) If there is a bit of vengeful aggression in all this, Mac owns it and, when he wants to, disowns it; he is fully at home in both a Bette Davis–style drag-queen persona and a fully unironic one, with the vocal chops to do justice to both. He is, you might say, a militant consensus artist, hoping to rein in the extremes of bad behavior on all fringes while permitting, and usually rejoicing in, everything in between. He tells the story of a performance artist pulling pieces of chicken from her vagina but stops (just) short of reenacting it.

So what does this all have to do with the first 30 years of our country? Well, 24-Decade History is not, as Mac drolly points out, objective. Through the popular music of the day he is looking to trace (or impute) the origins of contemporary cultural politics, in particular gender politics. His main themes are feminism, gay liberation, trans power, and the overall celebration of difference. If it might seem that period of 1776 through 1806 is inimical to such explorations, Mac is not overly troubled by preconceived ideas of what society was supposedly like at any given moment. People are people, and always were. He thus not only finds astonishing rarities that fit his concepts perfectly (one song — authentic, like all of them — is called “Nine Inch Will Please a Lady”) but he digs and digs at more familiar numbers until they give up a useful subtext. In Decade 1, structured around the concept of revolution, he identifies the homosexual panic of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”: It’s a song “that makes fun of effeminate men.” (American soldiers turned this British opprobrium into their own rallying cry.) In Decade 2, he takes characters from “Oh Dear! What Can the Matter Be?” (Billy, the husband late returning from the fair), “Katie Cruel” (the titular new-in-town hussy), and a fictional (I think) protagonist named Bernadette to create a three-way scenario about women’s subjugation and rebellion. And his take on Decade 3, inspired by a Dartmouth frat party he attended after a performance there, is about the late-adolescent conflict of drinking and temperance; in 1796, our country was a 20-year-old. He connects songs like “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes,” to the gorgeous intoxication of freedom and songs like “Crazy Jane” to the almost instantaneous victims of it.

Though he professes the insignificance of such factors, Mac sings very well indeed, and the arrangements by Matt Ray are often spellbinding. Whether as familiar as “Shenandoah” or as unfamiliar as “Parting Glass” and “10,000 Miles,” the finales of each act are especially strong. It’s hard to imagine how the remaining 21 decades can keep up this level of imagination and insight, on the one hand, and performative verve on the other. I can only hope that the always revolutionary nature of our politics will keep things hopping; subsequent acts treat such diverse emergencies as the Civil War, the atomic bomb, and “a Backroom Sex Party.” But the beginning was a good place to start, not only for obvious historical reasons. “Our independence we gave to the wind / and hope that the wind will return it again,” runs an astonishing line from “Derry Down Down,” circa 1776 to 1786, but here reconfigured as a warning about taking hard-won freedoms too lightly. Mac’s vision of our country — not, it must be said a happy or approving one — treats history itself as a kind of music, always alive when you sing it for someone.

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is at St. Ann’s through October 8.