Dressed in a dirty white dress, one white fishnet stocking, a bra functioning as a thong, elaborately sparkling facial make-up, and a blonde wig with a bright red bow, Taylor Mac presents a kind of drag that references traditional femininity while simultaneously being devoid of it. In The Young Ladies Of, his engaging solo show at HERE Arts Center, the performance artist grapples with questions of gender while making an attempt to understand his relationship to his father, who died when he was still a child.
A lieutenant in the U.S. army who was stationed in Vietnam, Robert Mac Bowyer left his son little to remember him by. However, a few years ago, the artist’s mother found a number of his letters, which she passed on to Mac. In 1968, Bowyer had placed a personal ad in an Australian newspaper for women to write to him, as he anticipated trips to Sydney while on leave. He received hundreds of responses, many of which Mac incorporates into his performance.
Most of the missives contain nothing more of interest than the weather or small pleasantries. The sheer monotony of the responses, in fact, is hilariously skewered in The Young Ladies Of. Yet, there are also glimpses into the loneliness and fears of some of these women, particularly in one revealing letter from a correspondent who talks about the death of her fiancé in Vietnam.
Mac utilizes the letters as a jumping off point for his own fractured narrative, contemplating the few small tidbits about his father that he’s able to glean from the women’s responses. For example, Bowyer’s favorite film was apparently Carousel, and Mac weaves plot points and song excerpts (which he plays on the ukulele) from the Rodgers & Hammerstein movie musical into the show.
He also discusses his family’s tradition of dressing its boys in girl’s clothing and giving them “feminine” gifts as a way of humiliating them. Mac contrasts this with his own gender subversive performances, particularly in an entertaining yet poignant slide show that highlights what he terms his “lineage of masculine dysfunction.”
As a performer, Mac has a commanding stage presence and a singing voice that ranges from baritone to mezzo soprano. His facial expressions are often comically exaggerated (all that make-up helps). He knows how to interact with his audience in a way that draws them into his story, making a number of amusing off-the-cuff remarks.
The piece has a satisfying arc, which dramaturg Nina Mankin and director Tracy Trevett no doubt helped Mac to achieve. A few puppets by Basil Twist add to the fun, particularly a fabulous creation used for the terrific finale.