If America were ready for a drag queen president — stranger things have happened — there is no question that Taylor Mac would be the one to come up with history’s most astutely outrageous, and most outrageously astute, version of “Hail to the Chief.”
Mac also could turn into a dictator. So be it. I’d vote Mac.
The performance artist’s crowd control skills are second to none. “What I’m going to ask you to do is going to go on longer than you want it to,” was how Mac prefaced the earliest instruction gave given to the audience in the first of four six-hour chapters of “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Thursday night.
“We want you to be uncomfortable,” Mac continued, telling the audience to stand, wave hands in the air and wiggle hips ridiculously. It got much worse. At times, I was ready to kill Mac. The entitlement!
But drag-queen entitlement is, without question, uniquely entertaining when in the hands (and all the other anatomical parts) of Mac, its greatest theatrical master. Extravagantly dressed, from headdress to platform heel toe, this master of disguise completely took us aback with an ability to cut through the bull, even while creating new levels of it.
If you haven’t already heard, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” is ruthlessly punishing, infuriating, alarming, charming, impressive and obsessive like no other music theater. It is also extraordinarily illuminating, if you are willing, without succumbing to silliness, to put up with it. Did I say it is infuriating? Wagner, to whom Mac has some resemblance in the grandiosity department, can be infuriating too. More important, like Wagner, Mac is a sorcerer.
With an hour for each decade from 1776 to the present, and through 246 (!) songs, Mac has set out to exhaustingly examine American history to find out how we got here. The show has no breaks. Mac never stops singing, storytelling, lecturing or emceeing, all the while beguiling and berating the audience. Each decade gets a different elaborate costume and comes with a narrative or historical theme. The heels stay on.
The extravaganza includes a raft of art-installation costumes by the artist who goes by Machine Dazzle; a 24-strong band led by the show’s arranger, Matt Ray; compelling lighting and staging; a troupe of loopy “dandy minions” who hand out drag swag, ping pong balls, blindfolds and whatnot; plus guest musicians.
Since then, Mac has done highlight versions (including at UCLA) and the full show broken down into four six-hour chapters. UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance is presenting the L.A. version, presumably the last complete one, at the Ace, where the show is being filmed.
I can’t say exactly what this history is because there are very few expected reference points. Mac calls it a ritual and sacrifice, one that honors the making of history through a queer lens. It distorts, as all lenses do. But it also focuses.
Mac finds our roots in hating Congress, misinterpreting “Common Sense” (initially misreading Thomas Payne’s pamphlet), making things (knitters are seated onstage), loving black hair, forgiving the oppressor and vilifying the outsider. You get the drift. The artist’s structure is to find some unifying aspect of each decade.
Sometimes the songs generate the meaning of a decade. Sometimes Mac strings out a narrative in which the songs fit in, almost like a musical. Songs can be great production numbers or not. They are arranged in musical styles that can be Afrobeat or something suited for Dolly Parton.
Broadway is delightfully dissed, as are a great many other things, sacred and (very) profane. Mac can be an amusing, catty stand-up comic. But the artist is best, by far, when more seriously exposing the bamboozlement of American history.
Mac begins at the beginning with the American Revolution. Little is what we think it is. Add a little context and change the emphasis when singing “Yankee Doodle” — as a singer Mac is more often than not a belter, but with a flair for finding original accents — and “Yankee Doodle” can be understood to be a British put-down of effeminate colonialists and their tacky feathers in their caps.
Turning to the oppression of the housewife, Adam and Eve somehow get referenced. An apple, removed from the crotch of one of Mac’s supporting cast members, is given to a couple of unfortunate audience members to bite — “Oh Dear What Can the Matter Be,” indeed. The temperance movement is upturned by drinking songs and free beer passed out by the dandy minions.
At Mac’s most outlandish, the performer requires the audience to be blindfolded for an hour to experience the senses anew — touch (brush a flower against the face of another audience member), taste (feed a grape to someone near you, you won’t know who), stand up and switch seats by feel.
Unfortunately, the sense that is heightened most is hearing, and Mac loses any hypnotic pull without being seen. The amplification denies the star’s voice its expressive dynamics. The band’s intonation turns annoying. I got vertigo and went to the lobby for a break. (You can come and go during the show.)
With the audience’s sight restored, the decade that follows (and ends the first chapter of “A 24-Decade History”) proves deeply moving. With each decade, a musician leaves the band, which is sad. (By the end next week, Mac will be alone with a ukulele.) The Indian Removal Act is examined in 1826 through 1836, via a narrative around the Trail of Tears. Mac was dressed like a fabulous schoolmarm.
At one point the amplification was turned off, and Mac sounded like a fine singer. In “Turkey in the Straw,” joy turned to anger. Microphones back on, “Banks of the Ohio” became a deceptive toe-tapping finale. But Mac, instead, ended the chapter with lens blurred, in magnificent midsentence, as if the artist’s voice were suddenly taken away in an unutterable trail of tears.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music’
Where: Theatre at Ace Hotel, 929 S Broadway, L.A.
When: 6 p.m. Saturday (Chapter 2), March 22 (Chapter 3) and March 24 (Chapter 4)
Tickets: $45-$250 per performance
Information: (310) 825-2101, cap.ucla.edu