On the Culture Front: Taylor Mac, Caught, Phaedra(s), and more

Taylor Mac is one of the few people I never tire of seeing on stage. Whatever project the enigmatic performer tackles he does it with warmth, depth and within the context of our rich and tortured collective history. As a playwright, Mac satirized the ever-expanding number of gender pronouns in the acerbically sharp and poignant "Hir" at Playwrights Horizons. Mac prefers the pronoun "judy" but after seeing "Hir," I can't help but think it's at least a little in jest.

He's the kind of performer who doesn't believe that art should be comforting as much as it should shake you out of a trance of conventional thinking. As a result, Mac's shows tend to be propelled by a thrilling momentum and filled with cathartic moments that are organically woven into the dramatic structure. They sneak up on you quietly for maximum impact.

Mac's latest and most ambitious show to date, "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music," is no exception. Performed in eight three-hour segments (or as one 24-hour theatrical marathon extravaganza), Mac performs songs from 1776-2016 with a band of two dozen musicians and a handful of singers. At least that's how it begins. Each hour one musician leaves the stage. On opening night, three musicians made their departure. "Amazing Grace," "Auld Lang Syne" and "Shenandoah" are the most recognizable in the first three decades but there are countless other gems that make the three plus hours fly by.

Christopher Chen's philosophical adventure play "Caught" feels like it has removed all boundaries of conventional theater in a way that's more inquisitive than experimental. Truth and its sometimes-slippery nature are the subject of this beautifully constructed and wildly inventive intermissionless work. Chen tackles the Mike Daisey controversy directly and through a fictional artist, Lin Bo (Louis Ozawa Changchien). What begins as a performance piece at one of his shows becomes an interrogation of his authenticity before morphing again into an analysis of his work and then into a final surprising transformation. The structure is so trippy that it's hard to know when the show is over and the actual talkback begins. In an age when almost everything is being labeled "meta," Chen's deep dive into the elusive nature of artistic creation (and questioning how fixed or relative the "truth" is) is sure to be one of the most exciting new plays of the season.

Few titles recently have made me more giddy than the puppet masterpiece "Bears in Space," a British import at 59E59 that first played at the daring and eclectically programmed Soho Theatre in London. This madcap romp through a fascist galaxy featuring brave bears, unrequited love and more than a couple outbursts in song is the brainchild of Jack Gleeson's company Collapsing Horse. Gleeson is best known as the demonic King Joffrey on "Game of Thrones" and plays another evil ruler here but there's a Monty Pythonesque whimsy that shines through and let's you know it's okay to laugh.

It would be a disservice to boil down Krzysztof Warlikowski's stunning production of the myth of Phaedra to a single thought. The gorgeous and grotesquely disturbing story unfurls over more than three hours and vacillates between feeling like an ensemble piece and a sprawling monologue delivered with manic poise by Isabelle Huppert. I'll always remember her from the disturbingly erotic Michael Haneke film, "The Piano Teacher," though the prolific actress' credits are endless. Culled from texts by Wajdi Mouawad, J.M. Coetzee and Sarah Kane, "Phaedra(s)" is a searing and often darkly funny portrait of the total breakdown of the family structure, dysfunction at its height, and yet we can't help but feel for Huppert's Phaedra and wonder what has led her to this point. Huppert's restrained delivery hides not fuzzy emotions but a deeply flawed humanity that reverberates inside us even as we watch her do horrible things. The third act fizzles a bit into a fog of academic analysis, but I remained haunted by this Phaedra long after I left BAM's Harvey Theater.

I did a pub-crawl on Saturday with my girlfriend or did we see a play? Shakesbeer takes place in four different bars with a scene performed in each by a talented cast of actors whose credits include Broadway and Off. The company uses these unconventional spaces to great theatrical effect. A particularly rousing scene from "The Cripple of Inishmaan" took place on top of the bar at Perdition with Shakesbeer producer and actress Kim Krane wielding raw eggs to thrilling effect. It could also be because this is where I had the best beer of the afternoon, the Star Trek IPA from Shmaltz Brewery which balances rich floral hops with a muted smooth finish. The other three scenes came from the Bard himself, my favorite being a meet cute between Romeo (Cory O'Brien-Pniewski and Juliet (Hannah Elless) that kicked off the event at Gaf West and involved selfies. Most of the action throughout this unique outing happened just a few feet from us giving the scenes a raw immediacy that was heightened by our growing buzz. This is, after all, how the majority of Elizabethans experienced these plays, in a raucous crowd with a beer in hand.

September can be marked by many things not least of which is the coming of fall but for me it's Pig Island, Jimmy Carbone's festival dedicated to all things porcine. Usually the weather is delightfully mild, but this year it was a scorcher. Kegs of Sixpoint's signature IPA's stayed full while their excellent gose named Jammer was in high demand. Another elusive beverage was water but luckily I was able to snag a bottle between gorging myself on the rich dishes. Like in past years, I didn't have a bad bite but the one that will stay with me is a pork risotto served with a dollop of fresh ricotta by the private chef Patricia Clark of All Five Senses catering. Aptly named indeed.