I never thought I’d write a fact-checking email in which I asked, “Is the corpse that Nathan Lane masturbates the same one that pees on his face?” But then again, I never thought I’d see a play as filthy as Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus on Broadway. Gary is many things. It’s a maximalist comedy, largely in rhyming verse, that asks whether art can redeem our fallen world. It’s a showcase for the considerable theatrical gifts of Nathan Lane, Julie White, Kristine Nielsen, and director George C. Wolfe. It’s a play about bodies, how bodies are cites of state violence when they are alive and mourning when they are dead. But it’s also a play about dicks.
Specifically, the dicks of dozens of dead Romans who lie in a few giant piles onstage, awaiting Gary and his boss Janice’s diligent (or not-so-diligent) processing. The bodies, which are suggestive cloth dummies rather than realistic representations, are male. In some cases very male, maybe even too male. According to set designer Santo Loquasto, the mannequins were made in multiple shops, and sometimes their endowments got out of hand. “The bodies [made in] Newburgh were more appropriate,” Loquasto said. “There was a tendency in Brooklyn for them to get too big. As I kept saying, maybe it’s something in the water?”
In Gary, the bodies aren’t just the major props; they also help set the tone of the show. As Loquasto put it, the play can’t “simply be gruesome and off-putting. In the development of the mounds of bodies, I had illustrative examples of cartoons,” including World War II newspaper drawings. The production team also drew from the show’s poster, created by the artist and Hunter S. Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman. Loquasto realized that if “the bodies can have the spirit of his line drawings, they’re never thought of as realistic.” The results are, essentially, “big dolls. They’re manageable in terms of the requirements of the script, but they are dummies.”
Dummies with dicks. One of which hits Lane in the face, another of which he masturbates, and a third, dubbed “Mr. Peebody” by the crew, which pees in his face. That last part was Lane’s idea, and making it work was lower-fi than you might assume. “Really silly theater devices,” Loquasto says. “The peeing device is like a turkey baster. He puts his hand inside the side of the body and squeezes the tube. He can control it, which is ideal.”
For director George C. Wolfe, all this clowning around with cloth members has a purpose. “Hopefully it’s cheap humor used smartly, not cheap humor used cheaply,” he said. “One of my goals is to try to reduce the audience to a groundling — to have them follow both the comedy that is lowbrow and at the same time juxtapose it with a witty and sophisticated script that is about how one copes when chaos permeates.” Lane’s getting peed on leads to a conversation about how this might be the worst day of Gary’s life, which in turn “leads to a conversation about Lavinia and the violation that took place to her, which leads to a conversation about Gary’s ambition to change the world.”
Of course Gary, a down-on-his-luck clown who nearly dies in Titus Andronicus, has his own ideas of what changing the world might entail. He wants to stage a “fooling,” a pageant of comedy so epic that, as described by Wolfe, it functions as “an attempt to try to expose the foolishness of the brutality and offer up something that is playfully foolish so as to render violence [obsolete].”
What that attempt looks like onstage is several dead soldiers rising from the pile of corpses and dancing as their pensies rise to full erection and then wag left to right. Figuring out how to stage that took more than a little invention. At first, the soldiers were going to be automatons, but it became clear that Wolfe’s options would be too limited if the blocking had to be programmed into robots. They needed real dancers. Tislarm Bouie, one of those dancers, recalled going for an audition on January 25 and getting hired on the spot. “We had an hour left of the audition, so we turned it into rehearsal,” he said. The goal was for the reanimated Romans to look as if they “just woke up from being dead. You wouldn’t be able to move that well. Everything’s bracketed — that’s the movement vocabulary.” For that, Wolfe drew inspiration from Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects in the film Jason and the Argonauts. “There’s this scene where the skeletons pop up out of the ground and they attack Jason,” Wolfe said. “I wanted to play around with that and then add the penis equation into it.”
Once it became clear that Gary required real dancers wearing fake penises, Loquasto turned to specialty prop designer Craig Grigg. Grigg’s built stage schlongs before, including one that had to urinate for a show that he declined to name. According to Grigg, the design bid included a requirement that “their privates dance like windshield wipers. They’re gray and uncut, because they’re Roman, and they’re dead. They’re smooth and nondescript, and they needed to be ‘substantial’ but not ‘exciting.’”
They also needed to be remote-controlled, and light enough that the dancers could carry them. Grigg’s first idea was inspired by push puppets, those little toy figures that collapse when you press a button relaxing the threads that hold all their joints together. He built one out of wooden beads, but when it came time to extend it to a full erection, “the thing curled up into an undesirable sinewy knot. When it was flaccid, it was fine. It just had a little performance anxiety.”
The penises as built are each a stack of universal joints. They’re trouser snakes that, on the inside, look an awful lot like an actual snake, with cables threaded through the joints and alongside them. Those cables run to servo motors of the type used by hobbyists and remote-control enthusiasts the world over, which have to be both programmable and quick to respond. “The dead lift to get the penis to come from flaccid to erect requires quite a bit of force,” Grigg said. “The motors are spinning up to 1,000 rpm to make the penises rise and sway.” In a lucky break, the motors themselves are roughly the size of testicles, allowing Grigg to hide them in what he matter-of-factly calls “the scrotal enclosure.”
As for their “substantial” but “not exciting” size, measured from the base of a dancer’s body, the penises are eight inches long and an inch and three-eighths in diameter. “I remember the first time I saw them,” Wolfe said. “I was just like going … Oh my, is this something — were all the ancient Romans that well endowed?” He considered asking for penises that varied in size but eventually decided that the standardization “adds to the burlesque nature of it all.”
As always, the stage is less forgiving than real life. Unlike (most of) their real-world counterparts, the penises of Gary need to perform on demand eight times a week, to precise specifications. When they rise, they need to point straight ahead, and they need to be able to swing left to right at a controlled, synchronized pace. “That calibration happens in the tip,” Grigg said. “The tip is the most sensitive part of the penis puppet.” It’s filled with small screws that maintain the correct tension on the cable so that its zero point stays centered.
The penises and scrota are each fitted onto a dancer’s belt, which the soldiers wear over a regular one, and they’re then controlled wirelessly by Cie Martin, Gary’s props master. “One slider moves the Romans up and down, and one slider moves the Romans side to side,” she said. The pace is not automated, requiring her to work in time to Danny Elfman’s score. When asked if this is the strangest thing she’s ever had to do as a props master, Martin replied, “I would say yes — but in this show it is not the strangest thing.” (That, it turns out, is Mr. Peebody, whose penis has to articulate correctly every night or the urine won’t come out. As Santo Loquasto described it, “There was one point where they said, ‘Well, maybe it shouldn’t seem like he gets erect.’ We all said, ‘Then you won’t have any tension for the water to come out.’”)
So what’s it like to dance with a robot penis sitting on top of your actual penis? According to Bouie, during the show itself, the adrenaline is pumping and he doesn’t feel it. But when they test it before the show, he says, “you’re like, ‘Something’s moving on top of my penis.’ You’re like, ‘Okay, something’s going on down there.’ It tickles.”