by Carol Rocamora
“It’s the fall of the Roman Empire… and it’s a comedy!!!!” So says the Booth Theatre marquee, and—believe me—that’s putting it mildly.
Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, is the wildest ride on Broadway this season—unhinged, harrowing and hilarious. And no wonder—it’s written by Taylor Mac, unconventional performance artist, MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, and unique voice in world theatre.
Gary picks up where Titus Andronicus—Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy—leaves off. The raging Civil War has ended, and it’s clean-up time. Piles of bloody corpses (the script specifies over 1,000) are stacked ceiling-high in the banquet hall of the emperor—and who’s there to clean up the mess? None other than the best vaudevillian trio on Broadway—the fearless Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen, and Julie White.
That’s where the fun—and I mean fun—starts. After a wacky prologue (in verse) by Julie White (a midwife who dies offstage in Titus), the curtain rises on Santo Loquasto’s sensational set. What an eye-popping sight! Mounds of cadavers litter the stage, crammed in every corner, piled so high they’re out of view. Wading, slipping and sliding through the carnage, Nathan Lane introduces himself as “Gary,” a former clown in the Titus regime, who narrowly escaped death and now returns, proudly promoted to the rank of “maid.” He’ll serve “Janice” (Nielsen), the cleaner-in-chief, assisting her in the gruesome task of mopping the blood-drenched floors and draining the corpses for burial.
Lane and Nielsen are a marvelous comedic duo, transforming their gory work into wild vaudevillian farce. (Yes, there are the inevitable flatulence and genitalia jokes—how could they be avoided, especially with Loquasto’s ingenious stage props?!) Their side-splitting shtick lasts about half of the play’s ninety minutes, until Julie White reappears as “Carol,” disrupting the duet with her wailing and grieving (she didn’t save a certain baby during the Titus regime, and sorely regrets it). Her arrival only increases the entertainment value offered by these divine vaudevillians.
However, Gary has a more serious purpose. He wants to be promoted to the role of “fool”, the classical role of the court jester who influences emperors and kings. His mission: “To save the world!” How? By preparing and presenting an entertainment for the new regime and the masses. The name of his new genre? A “fooling,” of course—a perfect blend of tragedy and comedy.
And so goes Taylor Mac’s immensely entertaining philosophical vaudeville—a pastiche of verse epic, farce, burlesque, grand guignol, the absurd, and political theatre. (Note: Gary outdoes even Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore for the “gore award.”) Ann Roth’s over-the-top costumes are fabulous, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting is dramatic, and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design is spot-on. George C. Wolfe, one of Broadway’s great showmen, directs this spectacle with consummate panache.
Yes, you get a taste of the “fooling” before the play’s end (don’t worry, I won’t spoil the surprise, for which Bill Irwin gets a special credit). Meanwhile, you stop trying to make sense of what’s going on, and enjoy the glorious, gory, and ultimately thought-provoking ride.
Gary: A Sequence to Titus Andronicus. Through August 4 at The Booth Theatre (222 West 45th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). 90 minutes, no intermission. www.garyonbroadway.com
Photos: Julieta Cervantes