By Paige Allen
June 14, 2019
“I want to be a fool!” the clown exclaims. Because, he believes, only a fool can “change the world.”
The dreams of a clown who yearns to be a fool propel Taylor Mac’s irreverent and audacious comedy Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, playing through Sunday at the Booth Theatre. Set in the aftermath of Shakespeare’s goriest play, Mac imagines what it’s like for those tasked with cleaning up the carnage in a world steadily falling to pieces.
And who better to lead us laughing through the mayhem than three comedic geniuses: Kristine Nielsen as the no-nonsense and pessimistic maid, Janice; Julie White as the neurotically hyperactive midwife, Carol; and the king of Broadway comedy, Nathan Lane, as the titular dreamer of a clown.
These three performers undertake a 95-minute comedic tour-de-force shaped by director George C. Wolfe which is not for the faint of heart. Plenty of humor is drawn from the blood, guts, and genitalia of the piles of dollike corpses designed by Santo Loquasto, from the sexual to the scatological and everywhere in between. If you’re not prepared to see Lane’s face get showered with pee or to hear a symphony of farts released from a dead body, Gary is not for you.
Although there is plenty of down-and-dirty crude humor, Gary does have a head on its shoulders. Behind the penises and the poo, Mac takes on pressing and complicated issues, and the play exists as much in the realm of metaphor and metatext as that of exaggerated carnage. Even after leaving the theater, I found myself thinking about what Gary has to say about how we should respond in times of crisis, how democracies fail and dictatorships are born, how to combat suffering and injustice, and how art can play into all of the above.
In fact, I fear Gary tends to get lost in its headiness. Its metaphors can get too jumbled, its abstractions too far from the ground, and its monologues a bit too preachy. While Gary has a heart to joke and a head to think, the play lacks feet to walk on (despite the several dozens of lifeless ones onstage). The plot seems built only to allow for jokes and metaphors, leaving it shaky at times. Gary wants to put on a play — a “fooling,” he calls the genre he invents — that will serve as an “artistic coup” — rallying the masses, saving the world, and destroying tragedy forever. The details of this plan are blurry, and the “fooling” itself, while amusing, does not quite deliver world-changing material. The audience is identified as “the court” late in the play which — if taken seriously — only confuses things. Perhaps I’m being too much of a literalist here, but the ending, while touching, does leave me with some questions, such as do they actually intend to both put on the “fooling,” especially with the newest addition to their group, and get out alive?
Nevertheless, the production did succeed in surprising me again and again. I was incredibly grateful that I had just visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit Camp: Notes on Fashion the night before seeing Gary. If the play wasn’t closing so soon, I would recommend the production and the museum create some kind of joint ticketing program. The show is a case study in a particular kind of camp almost fully stripped of luxury and glamor. I will spare you the essay I could write about Gary through the lens of Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp,’” but I will share some quotes from the exhibit I could not shake from my mind while watching the play.
In making a distinction between 19th-century dandyism and modern camp, Sontag writes, “The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity. Where the dandy would be continually offended or bored, the connoisseur of Camp is continually amused, delighted. The dandy held a perfumed handkerchief to his nostrils and was liable to swoon; the connoisseur of Camp sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves.” Mac invites us to “sniff the stink” with Gary, Janice, and Carol and be continually amused by it.
Caryl Flinn, a professor of screen arts and cultures, writes, “Camp is a scavenger, scrounging history’s waste in order to rediscover surplus value from forgotten forms of labor.” This seems to me the exact task Mac sets out to accomplish, locating these forgotten laborers from Shakespeare’s imaginary history Titus Andronicus and placing them in an exaggerated historical moment (the Fall of Rome) in order to “rediscover surplus value” — to deliver some kind of higher message.
Of course, Gary is not all camp. Mac smartly draws from a long history of comedic and political theater to create this play. Moments feel like Aristophanes; like Lysistrata, Gary is a political comedy based on an “absurd” situation, one that features as many oversized faux genitalia and sexual innuendos as political statements. Responding to Titus Andronicus, Mac does not resist purposefully mimicking Shakespeare’s style, incorporating sections of verse and asides in addition to explorations of the Shakespearean fool through Gary. The play is also indebted to Brecht as the actors break character and directly address the audience, sometimes delivering long, rhyming monologues which can feel like Brecht’s songs. And the characters’ cockney accents allude to a tradition of British class stereotypes played for laughs and even 19th-century British clowning.
With all this behind it, Gary still does not completely work. The play is largely carried on the backs of comedic giants and does get lost in the weeds of metatext and metaphor.
But still, something shines through, more than the play’s hilarity. Gary encourages us to think about how we’re supposed to respond to violence (on stage and off) and cope in a world that seems to be falling apart around us.
Can a fool really change the world? Armed with bloody limbs and big dreams, Mac, Nielson, White, and Lane are sure trying to, and — the play suggests — it’s the attempt that counts.
BCS-friendliness rating: 3 out of 5 stars
I paid $79 plus fees through TodayTix to see Gary after it had announced its closing date. There were some $59 tickets available on the app but not for the night I was looking at attending. TKTS had tickets from $73-$93. Gary also offers same-day $40 rush tickets, available when the box office opens.
I was happy with the view from my seat in the side orchestra section. I could have also sat in the mezzanine for the same price, and I think both viewing experiences would have been fine. The show is certainly not subtle.