theater review

The Holidays Are a Drag: Taylor Mac and Joshua William Gelb Dress for It

Taylor Mac (in Arcimboldo mode) in Holiday Sauce: Pandemic! Photo: Courtesy of Pomegranate Arts

Nothing says “holiday season” like drag. Or … drag doesn’t say it so much as point to the season, point back at herself, and roll a mascaraed eye. This is the time of year when everything everywhere is trying to horn in on her methods: Many of drag’s core principles — excess, tableaux, robes with dramatic LININGS — show up in our best window displays and finest nativity scenes. Heck, even trees don sparkly apparel, and the sky throws tinsel. Glitter, says the snowfall, and be gay.

That’s why I recommend two current drag spectaculars (one large, one tiny) for your Christmas fortnight, even if you’d normally avoid celebrating. To start with, the traditional blowout: Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce… Pandemic!, an annual vaudeville reimagined for shutdown. It’s a massive production, shot at the Park Avenue Armory with more than a dozen co-producers wrangled by Pomegranate Arts, managing to communicate abundance in a season that has been marked mainly by loss. Mac always goes big — other projects include a 24-hour performance marathon — and the Armory’s luxe immensity makes a gorgeous background for that muchness. The building is melancholy in the long shots, in which a distant seven-foot Christmas tree in stripper heels (played by costume and set designer Machine Dazzle) wanders lonely through the vast drill hall, but it’s much warmer in the close-ups, with musical guests filmed in the cozy anterooms.

Holiday Sauce does shamble a little around the edges: There are Democratic National Convention–esque call-ins from “elves” and locally beloved community figures around the country, which contrast with the slicker production numbers. But queer decadence is embellishment, not polish. For instance, the variety hour is dedicated to the much-missed Mother Flawless Sabrina, whose 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest brought together drag queens from every state. Mac, dressed in a spectacular Arcimboldo tribute — face painted by Anastasia Durasova with fruits and vegetables under an immense cornucopia bouffant — reminisces about visiting her in her apartment, an art object in its own right. How did she make her golden ceiling? “Tin foil and 50 years of smoking,” she rasped. “She knew how to make a world,” says Mac.

I’ve been trying to think of a delicate way to warn nervous viewers about the horniness of Holiday Sauce, which includes multiple fisting references and the butt-baring burlesque star James Tigger! Ferguson lip-syncing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” while dancing past a wall full of gilded dildos. But why protect anyone from such frankness and mirth? Watch it as a family! High-five your parents on Zoom over the joke that “O Tannenbaum” is the sound of a bear peeing on a pine tree. Most other holiday programs, like the zillion currently available versions of A Christmas Carol, paper over our current terror and sorrow — but not Holiday Sauce. Even at its most ecstatic, drag performance contains an element of bravado, and it turns out that panache is, briefly, contagious. Between wry comments about capitalism and horrible childhood memories, Mac recommends that other souls wounded by this un-meek, un-mild time should use the magic of “substitution.” If one family will not love you, substitute your chosen one; if you rankle at the word “holy,” think instead about your own favorite holes. It’s a magical and courageous and selectively filthy way to walk through the world. They say “holy,” you think [redacted gesture]. Merry Christmas!

The week’s far smaller drag spectacle, though, is actually the one that undid me. It’s a cliché of pandemic life that we talk about our outsize emotional reactions — if you believe Critic Twitter, we’re all sobbing over our keyboards. So I feel a bit shy telling you about the wracking grief elicited by I Am Sending You the Sacred Face playing a little “run” on Theater in Quarantine, Joshua William Gelb’s YouTube channel. It’s a 40-minute opera about Mother Teresa, written by Heather Christian, recorded by Christian but lip-synced by Gelb in a glittering nun drag. Why the show had this effect is still opaque to me — but I feel it’s only responsible to warn you.

Each successive Theater in Quarantine has pushed the boundaries of what’s possible in Gelb’s tiny closet turned performance space. Stuck at home, he’s made a venue with what he had at hand: a white rectangle, just four-by-eight-by-two. In July, he and Sinking Ship Productions staged the 7th voyage of egon tichy, a complicated bit of video-editing wizardry in which he multiplied his image until we were watching a whole warren of Gelbs, crawling from rectangle to rectangle, like a prairie dog in a cutaway den. In the months since, a number of major collaborators have written work for TiQ, including Madeleine George and Scott R. Sheppard, and each time, the sophistication of the craft sharpens.

Joshua William Gelb in I Am Sending You the Sacred Face. Photo: Katie Rose McLaughlin for Theater in Quarantine

For I Am Sending You the Sacred Face, Christian recorded herself singing and playing her monodrama, which interleaves hypnotically spoken texts (parts taken verbatim from Mother Teresa’s speeches and diaries) with songs inspired by the saint’s long “dark night of the soul.” This terror, described in a poem by St. John of the Cross, is the awful doubt of the faithful losing the sense of God’s presence. After her death, Mother Teresa’s private writings revealed that she had been suffering for nearly 50 years, the longest “dark night” of any saint. “I am keeping the room vacant,” she sings in Christian’s libretto, “he won’t come unless it’s spotless.” Her smiling, sure peacefulness was an act, a performance, a costume. Drag.

To play her, Gelb was guided by choreographer Katie Rose McLaughlin and “drag dramaturg” Dito van Reigersberg, learning the swift poses and hauteur of a grande dame diva. (It’s useful that van Reigersberg’s drag persona is Martha Graham Cracker, since Gelb uses the white-and-blue sari in the same way Martha Graham used her “Lamentation” costume — as hood, shield, tube, architecture.) Stivo Arnoczy’s video design places the closet’s narrow white rectangle into golden frames like an altar triptych; sometimes there are three Gelb-Teresas side by side, sometimes there is only one but with golden surfaces folding out to either side. In this way the video refigures Gelb’s vivid makeup and glittering sequins as the hyperadornment of Byzantine icons, those fabulous medieval Marys with gold-foil halos and rubies along their gowns.

Christian swings between the language of the gospels and casual chat (“we’re two songs in, so we’re officially friends”), as her bewitching, bluesy voice makes no difference between them. And as ever with one of her musicals, each turn of phrase is worthy of careful study. One brief sequence meditates on the way fire drives the moisture out of wood, making it suffer so that it can float. Already in the last few days, I’ve returned to that image many times. I have loved Christian’s longer works too, but it’s staggering to encounter her in this compressed, psalmist’s mode. What a rich and useful thing she and Gelb have made! In the opera, Mother Teresa describes her promise to God as a chalice: “A cup by nature has two states, filling and emptying,” she says. The saint is anguished by her hollowness; the actor can only show us a painted travesty. But they both draw attention to the value of surfaces in a time of spiritual crisis. While you’re waiting for belief to pour in — decorate your cup.

Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce…Pandemic! is available on demand until January 2. I Am Sending You the Sacred Face has another live performance on Friday, December 18, at 9 p.m., and after that will be available on Theater in Quarantine’s YouTube channel.

Holidays Are a Drag for Taylor Mac and Joshua William Gelb