Taylor Mac cannot be faulted for lacking ambition. The playwright-performer’s latest show, Bark of Millions, is a global survey of queerness in 55 songs — one for every year since Stonewall and each a portrait of a different queer person. Now playing at BAM for just this week, the whole thing takes over four hours to perform — without an intermission. But if Taylor Swift can go for three hours straight, Taylor Mac (who has done longer) can do four hours queer.
“Our goal this evening is to make you queer,” says Mac, who blithely refers to the event as “reverse conversion therapy.” As a middle-aged homosexual, I ought to be upfront about my resistance to applying the Q-word to myself. I never signed up for this omnibus identity, which encompasses every letter in the alphabet (and more). Nor do I embrace the bourgeois killjoy politics that have come to be associated with it. But it’s safe to say that most of Mac’s subjects would also not answer to “queer” — not, at least, without taking great offense.
There are songs about Mary Shelley, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and one of my heroes, the Cuban dissident author Reinaldo Arenas (sung beautifully by Le Gateau Chocolat, whose baritone is as rich as the name suggests). It is a testament to both Mac’s expansive curiosity and the broad church of queer (which, like the Mormons, baptizes us posthumously and without our consent) that there are also numbers about Felix Yusupov, the Egyptian God Atum, and ALL the Greeks — who certainly never thought they were being queer by having the kind of sex they wanted to have.
Lyricist Mac has teamed up with his collaborator on The Hang, composer Matt Ray, whose undeniable talent for pastiche is on full display here. Folk, rock, jazz, disco, and funk all play into this wonderfully tuneful show (a late number dedicated to Oscar Wilde is particularly stirring, as the ensemble climbs to the heavens on a series of thirds). The music often had my whole body grooving, even when I had no idea what the actors were singing about.
I suppose I would have gotten more out of Mac’s lyrics if I could have heard them, but a persistent sound balance issue meant that I only caught about 50 percent on the clearest numbers, and considerably less on others. This is a shame, because when I could understand what was being said, I was riveted. “Margaret Cho,” a number about drunken brooding at the end of a Pride Parade, captured the alienation I have always felt in queer spaces.
While it’s very likely you’ll connect with individual numbers, a compelling whole never coheres. Under the busy yet oddly shapeless direction of Mac, Niegel Smith, and Faye Driscoll, Bark of Millions has the feeling of a high-concept house party you happen to have stumbled upon, which could happily go on with or without you. When not performing, the actors lounge on imaginative bespoke furniture (at least one pillow is shaped like a curved penis), teasing each other with oversized props (by Oscar Escobedo and Zach Blumner). There’s palpable sexual energy, especially as the actors strip down to their bare essentials. It’s like Hair, but with less plot and better costumes.
As in The Hang, those costumes are by Machine Dazzle, who also appears as a member of the ensemble and just happens to wear some of the best garments (a fringe football jersey sporting the number 69 is an instant classic, and Dazzle resembles an automated carwash as he rolls across the stage, sweeping up confetti). The costumes are extraordinary, eye-popping, and seem to be tailored perfectly to each individual performer.
And there are some excellent performers in this cast. Thornetta Davis sizzles on the number “BDB Women” (that’s “bull dyke blues”). El Beh transports us to a Ranchera concert with her gorgeously expressive rendition of “Chavela Vargas.” And the balladeer Jules Skloot is positively charming in a number about King James I.
Jack Fuller delivers the standout performance of the evening, first emerging in an ultra-cool number about James Baldwin and his expressive cigarette. Fuller makes an equally powerful impression in later songs about Leonardo Da Vinci and Bayard Rustin. With the bewitching presence of Grace Jones and a voice that can soar above even the loudest percussion, Fuller is an absolute star.
Unfortunately, no amount of star power can overcome the massive hurdles the creative team have put in place for this ambitious yet unevenly executed event. Perhaps in the spirit of queer liberation, they have opted to allow audience members to come and go as they please throughout the show (remember, there’s no intermission). The result is a lot of activity at the beginning of each new song as people stand up and push their way to the aisle, with others adding to the traffic jam as they return (this becomes especially disruptive around the 2-hour mark). It’s a strategy that might work well with cabaret seating, but in a traditional theater like the Harvey, it’s just messy. Sure, sure…rules are meant to be broken. That’s the queer thing to do. But you could also make everyone’s life a lot easier by adopting the tried-and-true (if a little dull) convention of an intermission.
The lesson of Bark of Millions is, when you’re looking to overturn the status quo, you really ought to have a better alternative to replace it.