Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Taylor Mac's Bark of Millions at Cal Performances

Bark of Millions, a four-and-a-half hour, intermissionless, queer rock opera with lyrics by Taylor Mac and music by Matt Ray moved into UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall last weekend for three marathon performances, and it was a pleasurable privilege to experience the extravagant work.
I only stayed for three hours at Friday's opening night because of worry about missing the last BART train back to San Francisco, and sensory exhaustion from the succession of new music and abstract, often incomprehensible lyrics.
With the assistance of Louisa Spier, Cal Performance's PR person extraordinare, I returned for the whole shebang on Sunday afternoon, and was completely won over. It helped that Friday's visit had lodged quite a few of Matt Ray's catchy tunes in my brain and the audience was more awake and involved in the show on Sunday.
Taylor Mac (center, standing) is a California boy who went to New York to be an actor, and after 30 years is an overnight, internationally successful "theatrical artist." And a very busy one too. After this weekend, Mac will be starring as Orlando in a new play by Sarah Ruhl at the Signature Theater in New York in April, and wrote the book for a new musical version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil which is premiering at Chicago's Goodman Theater this summer. Global fame came with the 2016 marathon: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which unspooled continuously for 24 straight hours, decade by decade. HBO/Max just started showing a documentary about the show which has expanded Taylor Mac's fan base exponentially.
Theatrical productions backstage tend to become extended families, with varying degrees of functionality and dysfunctionality that mirror the biological ones. Throw in sleep deprivation, a shared endurance experience, and moments of transcendent joy, and they can easily become cultlike. In the program notes, Taylor Mac writes, "Here's something that terrifies me about the work (and also makes me laugh): there's an unintentional cult-like...motif? It's something that happens when you get a bunch of queers on a stage and have them harmonize. They seem like a cult."
This show is partly a byproduct of the pandemic, as Taylor Mac would send lyrics inspired by a historical queer person or mythical god/dess to musical composing partner Matt Ray until they had completed 55 separate songs, one for every year since the Stonewall riots in 1969. The lyrics are not hagiography ("some are real assholes," Taylor notes) but a jumping off place for thoughtful, sometimes abstract songs. (Pictured above are Taylor Mac, Wes Olivier, and El Beh singing Sylvia Rivera.)
For me, the most astonishing surprise of the show was the depth and greatness of the omniverous, eclectic mix of music composed by Matt Ray, who is pictured above singing Felix Yusupov. The score is comparable to Galt MacDermot's Hair, with its mixture of hard rock, Broadway, soul, gospel, ballads, jazz and more. Both Ray and MacDermot were educated and performed in jazz ensembles, and their skillful playfulness with many kinds of musical styles is a form of genius. The problem with Hair was always its threadbare book but Bark of Millions dodges that problem by not having a book at all.
Led by Matt Ray on piano, the band assembled for Bark of Millions is a knockout, and they gamely joined in the physical shenanigans of the singers and dancers for a few numbers. They are so good they deserve to be singled out: Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks, drums; Viva DeConcini, guitars; Ari Folman-Cohen, bass; Greg Glassman, trumpet; Jessica Ivry, cello; Dana Lyn, violin; Joel Mateo Ramos, percussion; and Lisa “Paz” Parrott, woodwinds.
The extraordinary ensemble of about a dozen singers and dancers made for a stunning chorus, sometimes accompanying their fellow players as background singers and other times taking the lead as a group. Individually, they were all given their solo moments to shine in the sun, like Stephen Quinn above singing about San Francisco's 19th century trans-man, Jack Bee Garland.
The costume designer Machine Dazzle started off as a young queer refugee from darkest Idaho escaping to New York where he designed outrageous outfits for himself and fellow club kids. This led to designing outfits for theater where he has becoming something of a legend for his maximalist costumes for Taylor Mac over the last couple of decades. He even gets to join this show onstage for the entire duration, where he seemed to be having a blast. (Pictured above is the amusing Herman Melville where the Moby Dick author is spurned in love by Nathaniel Hawthorne.)
The elaborate costumes and wigs started to come off in the last hour of the show, with about half the cast nearly naked by the end. The Oscar Wilde number was an orgiastic finale complete with audience standing ovations for each individual performer. However, it wasn't quite over. In what felt like a bit of post-coital tenderness, Taylor Mac and Matt Ray led the ensemble in a quiet song called You & Me in an explicit gesture towards inclusion in this queer theatrical cult. If you can catch a live performance somewhere in the world in the next couple of years, do it. (Pictured are Taylor Mac and Steffanie Christi’an performing the really lovely song, The Ladies of Llangollen.)

1 comment:

janinsanfran said...

Just wow! Thanks.