San Francisco's Magic Theatre Triumphs with the West Coast premiere of The Lily's Revenge

Many a hero has set out on an ill-defined quest. From Odysseus to Orly Taitz, from Don Quixote to Christine O'Donnell, some people aim a bit too high. Whether fate conspires against them or they simply lack the basic skills to accomplish their dreams, they are nevertheless frequently aided and abetted by friends, relatives, co-conspirators and lovesick fools.

With all the controversy surrounding the battle over marriage equality for same-sex couples, conservatives have fallen back on their usual claim that allowing gays to marry will lead to the wholesale destruction of heterosexual marriage (not to mention a dramatic increase in polygamy, incest and bestiality). Trapped by their usual cultural blindness, none of these people ever considered the possibility of humans marrying plants. Thankfully, Taylor Mac is here to set them straight.

A gifted playwright and performer with a powerful voice in print and song, Mac's "rolling premiere" of The Lily's Revenge opened at the Magic Theatre last week and is, without doubt, cause for celebration. Running nearly five hours in length (with three "interactive" intermissions), The Lily's Revenge is the kind of spectacular romp and frolic that brings back fond memories of Charles Ludlam's infamous Ridiculous Theatrical Company.

The Lily's Revenge is also what Ed Sullivan used to call "a really big show." With a cast of 36 performers and nearly a dozen musicians trying to bring Mac's play to life under the skilled talents of six Bay Area stage directors (Meredith McDonough, Marissa Wolf, Erin Gilley, Jessica Holt, Jessica Heidt and Erika Chong Shuch), the scale of this undertaking for a small, financially struggling company like Magic Theatre is equivalent to the upcoming Ring cycle at the San Francisco Opera. It offers solid proof that thinking big (for Mr. Mac as a playwright/performer and for Loretta Greco as an Artistic Director/producer) can pay huge dividends. As Greco explains:

This whole process embodies an act of pure faith, something Magic Theatre was founded on. This time we put our faith in the subversively genius and joyous change maker, Taylor Mac. We offer him a safe but fearless artistic home where he can re-imagine and refine his play in this rare opportunity not only for a second production, but the next in an international rolling premiere that crosses the country and the Atlantic Ocean. Plans are already under way for his return to Magic to build additional works of community, ambition, fierce intelligence, and joy. We are believers. And none of us could be happier.

With the brash innocence of an animated Disney hero who must conquer all odds to win the heart of Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, or some other trophy princess, Taylor Mac stars as a Lily (complete with petals, pistils, and stamen) who sassily decides to save a bride from marrying the wrong person. The only hitch is that, in order to save her, he must shed his flower-like qualities and become a man. The proud recipient of an Ethyl Eichelberger Award, Mr. Mac is carrying on a wildly flamboyant tradition of pansexual pantomime entertainment with the kind of revolutionary zeal that could make the priggish Ken Cucinnelli clench his anal sphincter so tightly that Virginia's attorney general might actually implode.

Taylor Mac stars in The Lily's Revenge
(Photo by: Jose Guzman Colon)

One might try to describe The Lily's Revenge as the irreverently delightful bastard love child of Peter Brook's famous staging of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade and Leonard Bernstein's musical adaptation of Voltaire's novella, Candide, as performed by the Cockettes. Or, as one character so aptly states "You're a nightmare in a dream ballet." As the playwright explains:

Lily was inspired by anti-gay marriage agendas, which use tradition and nostalgia as an argument for discrimination ("marriage has always been between a man and a woman"). It was also inspired by the ever-growing homogenization of our cities ("things aren't the way they used to be") and, perhaps most of all, the millions of flowers, suffocated in plastic, and thrown on the White House lawn, Buckingham Palace, and The Vatican in honor of Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Princess Diana's funerals.

Lily dismantles the established societal rules, traditions, myths, and tropes, which are used to keep us docile and imprisoned in the past. Then, while celebrating the pulled apart pieces, rearranges and glues them into the foundation of a new myth whose purpose is to inspire humanity in the here and now. It lives in the theater and becomes a site-specific extravaganza. It is a multidisciplinary pastiche where a community of artists is brought together to enable community building of a scale rarely seen in the theater. It gives proof to the various communities (the audience and artists) of an active and present kinship: people capable of dispatching their compartmentalized norms.

Act I (The Deity: A Princess Musical) begins as Time (Jeri Lynn Cohen) begs the audience to flee the building while they can and save themselves from enduring five hours of this dreadful mess that claims to be a significant piece of theatre. Pointing to the flower maidens strewn about the stage, she says:

My eldest child, the malicious Great Longing Deity, God of Nostalgia, has trapped them in this cock-and-bull story with institutionalized narrative. Little by little they have turned from lively questioning individuals to cliché crones of mediocrity. Woolgathering junkies of wistfulness. Escape now or the telling of this narrative will reduce you, like these Flower Girls, to an addicted coagulation of nostalgia and hope.

When the play starts, The Great Longing will use the promise of a climax. A climax in the shape of the most banal and contemptible contrivance of all: The Wedding. It will use a wedding to nail you to this benighted tale. Flee. I beg you. Make your escape now, in this moment, or this moment will be no more. No. Really. The exits are where you entered...


Jeri Lynn Cohen as Time in The Lily's Revenge
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Soon, the hero makes his appearance (as a rather ditsy member of the audience) and formulates the goal of marrying his beloved bride. Never mind that there are inter-species issues between humans and the plant kingdom (the horror, the horror).

Taylor Mac stars in The Lily's Revenge (Photo by: Pak Han)

While part of the plot centers on the Lily's journey to a factory farm in Ecuador, behind Mac's five-act extravaganza is an effort to break down the rigidity of audience expectations. Thus, theatregoers are told to take their belongings with them as they leave the auditorium during the breaks between acts. During each intermission, the seating arrangements are changed from Magic Theatre's usual thrust stage to theatre in the round and a variety of other seating formats. The end goal, by turning the physical theatre upside down and inside out, is to eliminate the concept of the fourth wall that has, for centuries, been symbolized by the use of a curtain (lustily portrayed here by Mollena Williams).

Mollena Williams as the malicious Curtain (Photo by: Pak Han)

Act 2 (The Ghost Warrior: An Act in Iambic, Song, and Haiku) takes place in a mythical garden of pollinating delights. Not only does it feature a brilliant verse contest with various flowers calling each other out in botanical haikus, there is a giant queen bee, some fierce rhyming, and insects rimming plants. At the end of the act, the Lily is carried off by one of Time's daughters, the Wind (also played by Jeri Lynn Cohen) on his quest to become a man. The quest, as summarized by the Lily, is as follows:

To travel to Ecuador, free the Dirt, then lead a revolt against the Great Longing deity, consumption, and corporate greed.

Act 3 (The Love Act: A Dream Ballet) is where things may start to get rough for the more timid souls in the audience. Upon returning from another interactive intermission (which can include anything from a string trio performing in a freight elevator to an opportunity to chat with the performers), theatregoers watch Wind and the Lily as they journey south. A more sobering analysis of this extremely athletic segment (daringly choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch) demonstrates that traditional marriage is far too restrictive to be worth it.

Act 3 also takes a probing look at whether or not one should repress desires of a sexual (or any other) nature. Prudes may be shaken by the sight of dancers slithering across the floor until they can simulate acts of cunnilingus and then turning to the audience to gasp "I can't believe I just ate pussy!"

Act 3's bridal dream ballet (Photo by: Pak Han)

Act 4 (The Living Persons Act: A Silent Film) uses animation designed by Erin Gilley. This soon leads to Act 5's grand finale (The Mad Demon: Divine Madness) during which the Lily, having shed its glorious colors and floral beauty to become a socially acceptable man dressed in gray, white, and black, exhorts everyone to live the life they want, marry the person they love, and fuck the status quo.

There are many actors to applaud for their work in this huge production. Giving grand support to Taylor Mac are Casi Maggio (Bride Deity), Paul Baird (Groom Deity), Marilee Talkington (Master Sunflower), Julia Brothers (Susan Stewart/Evil Stepmother), Mollena Williams (The Great Longing), Jeri Lynn Cohen (Time, Stepmother, Wind), Larissa Garcia (Tick), and Ross Travis (who doubles as an audience member and an incurable disease).

There is no way one can accurately do justice in trying to describe the circus-like atmosphere of Mac's amazing show. Taken by themselves, the costumes designed by Lindsay W. Davis and makeup by Monique Jenkinson/Fauxnique are worth the price of admission.

With its use of every dramatic gimmick from vaudeville to puppetry and poetry slams, this is one of the rowdiest and most raucous pieces of epic theatre you're ever likely to see. This brief performance of The Gluteus Ballet (which serves as one of the intermission features) will give readers a quick peek at the rude, crude, and hilariously lewd "anything goes" spirit of the show. It will also forever change the way you think of Maurice Ravel's popular Boléro!

The Lily's Revenge continues at the Magic Theatre through May 22nd. If you're the slightest bit uptight, conservative, or prudish, this is probably not the show for you. If, on the other hand, you think it's about time the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence had some serious competition, get your ticket now! Here's the trailer:

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