To call the art of Taylor Mac ambitious is an understatement, and maybe even an insult. In one of his last outings as a performer in SF in 2011, Mac brought his extravagant production of The Lily's Revenge, a five-hour experimental fable with a large cast, large costumes, large socio-political metaphors, a dinner break, and plenty of audience interaction. Meanwhile his four-person play Hir, which premiered in SF at The Magic in 2014, while smaller in scale only, tackles the topics of gender, family, domestic abuse, war, the role of academic discourse, and suburban dystopia and has been a recent hit Off-Broadway. Drawing on a few similar themes from this earlier work, Mac brings two parts of his eight-part, 24-hour-total, musical performance piece A 24-Decade History of Popular Music to SF at the Curran Theater this week (the first part debuted last Thursday), and it is a wildly original, broad-ranging, entertaining as it is discomfiting piece of theater that simultaneously does something I don't think anyone has really ever attempted to do: to stage a historical survey of popular music dating back the entire 240 years of our nation's independence. He's only doing six hours of the 24 here in SF during this "workshop for the backers' audition," as he semi-jokingly calls it, but having only seen three of the six I'm already thoroughly impressed and vicariously exhausted.
Mac doesn't do anything small. A 24-Decade History of Popular Music has already been workshopped in parts, out of order, in New York, and Mac is currently taking other parts on tour in preparation for a full, 24-hour marathon concert performance later this year. How his body or his voice will sustain that feat is anyone's guess (he's still trying to figure out bathroom breaks without leaving the stage), but I'm guessing he approaches it much like he approached last night's performance, the very first time "Act 2: 1806 to 1836" had been performed in front of an audience. "I feel extremely nervous and incredibly confident, which I think is an ideal state to be in," he said shortly after getting on stage with a rousing Irish story-ballad from the early Nineteenth Century, sung in a style somewhere between John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and Justin Vivian Bond as Kiki.
Mac is backed by a talented nine-person band, including horns and strings, and each "act" is divided into three hour-long segments with no breaks in between. We transition, with him, via some quick costume changes, through decades' worth of popular songs that are by turns inane, delightful, and surprisingly nuanced and moving especially from an age of popular music that most of us, and most of the world, has never heard. There are a few exceptions around the 1820s, when Mac delves into a few children's songs that have survived the ages the "ABC" song, for instance. Overlaid on this particular act is a continuous storyline Mac weaves out of that opening song a story about a fair Irish maiden and her lover Harry, a plow boy, their journey to America, Harry's enlistment in the War of 1812, and their ultimate adoption of a young Shawnee girl on the eve of the Trail of Tears. But mostly, this is a highly interactive concert performance with some great, often personal comedic banter from Mac, and also what he's dubbed a "Radical Faerie realist ritual." (And I know the words "interactive theater" are horror-inducing to the introverted and easily embarrassed, and though Mac still would love to have you there, you should be warned they very much apply.)
All of this takes place with the audience's back to the backstage wall, with Mac and the band performing against the backdrop of the historic, empty Curran (currently under renovation) and its grand chandelier.
Something I wrote about The Lily's Revenge applies equally well here, too it is clumsy in all the best ways, and there is a comfort and delight to putting yourself in the hands of a skilled and articulate performer who you know has something to say, and is not going to bore you. Mac remains a clever, insightful, impish and provocative presence under all the glitter and tulle, and as he said more than once after minor flubs last night, "Perfection is for assholes."
Spoiler alert: As has been discussed before, if you've read up on Mac's earlier workshops and about A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, one hour of this act involves blindfolds. The entire audience, in fact, gets blindfolded, plays musical chairs, ends up on the floor, and this is all in honor of the invention of braille in 1824 the blind being just one of many groups of oppressed or dispersed people to whom Mac promises to pay tribute throughout the 24 decades. (Feminism, for instance, plays a role in Revolutionary times in Act 1, and will pop up several more times, including 1910 and 1990.) While I appreciate the experiment, and I'm sure it at least gave Mac a breather in which to sit down there are also some games with our other senses that I won't delve into I can't say I'm entirely on board with going to see theater only to get blindfolded for that length of time. Mac even makes a cool costume change during this period of audience blindness, only to reveal it for a few seconds, from afar, once the blindfolds come off, and then reappear in an entirely different costume. Why?
There are more questions than answers in the whole three hours, to be sure. Mac guesses at the historical context of a few songs, and provides some loose context for a few others, but otherwise most are sung without context, or even country of origin (several are Irish and Scottish, as these were what was popular in America at the time). He provides some proxy context by way of the invented story, and his intent isn't to give a music history lesson in each hour. Rather it's to make you feel something new, by way of the odd tension between your present context and a musical telegram from a moment in time that neither you nor anyone you could have known lived through. That tension works especially well in the final decade of the act, when Mac firmly frames the context of the Trail of Tears and President Andrew Jackson's indifference to the humanity of Native Americans against a series of upbeat children's songs.
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, regardless of how it's received in individual increments by individual audience members, seems destined to exist as something important, and I say that without knowing what final shape it will take. Perfection is for assholes, and something this audacious and weird will never be perfectly well metabolized, or turned into, as Mac jokes repeatedly, "a heteronormative jukebox musical that gets turned into an Oscar-winning movie." But the theater world of San Francisco feels more than ready to have its comfort zone challenged, and its intellectual buttons pushed, and that is what he's here for.
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music Act 2: 1806-1836 plays tonight, January 27, and a full marathon of Acts 1 and 2 plays on Saturday, January 30 starting at 3 p.m. Find tickets here.
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