Playwright Taylor Mac on "Gary": Following in Shakespeare's bloody footsteps

"Gary" playwright Taylor Mac

Excited crowds seemed to expect the unexpected as they gathered outside New York City's Booth Theatre for the opening of "Gary," a new play starring Nathan Lane. "I have heard it's a wild ride of a show," said one theatre-goer.

And though Lane is the show's star, everyone wanted to have their picture taken with just one person: Taylor Mac. It's the playwright and performer's first turn on Broadway.

"It's very rare for something like this to be on Broadway," Mac said. "So, I think it's exciting and fun. I hope that people celebrate it." 

Many critics have ("Bloody hilarious"); others have not ("Bloody awful"). 

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Kristine Nielsen and Nathan Lane in "Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus" by Taylor Mac, now on Broadway. Julieta Cervantes

Then again, eliciting strong reactions is something of a specialty for Mac, whose epic show, "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music," earned a Pulitzer nomination, among many other accolades. 

"I do have a lot of awards that say 'unique,'" he laughed. "And I always think, Is that a caveat? But, I'm very happy for them. I mean, somebody's gotta be unique!"

There's no doubt unique definitely describes "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music."  In it, Mac sings 246 songs spanning American history, dressed in the most elaborate drag.  Every song, like his version of "Amazing Grace," gets the artist's distinctive treatment. 

Taylor Mac sings Amazing Grace through the streets of San Francisco by San Francisco Curran on YouTube

The show runs 24 hours – usually performed in installments over four nights – which may give some audience members pause: "People think, 'Oh, I'm coming to a 24-hour show … or four six-hour shows, how can I do that?'" Mac said. "But because of all the stuff we ask them to do, the time goes by for them very quickly."

Yes, audience participation is essential, like engaging in a ping pong ball fight, to re-enact a Civil War battle. It sounds crazy, there is almost always a method to Mac's madness. "The goal isn't to kill them, it isn't to totally break them," he laughed. "But it is to challenge them and put them through something that they wouldn't normally go through."

Nathan Lane says Mac's newest venture may be his most risky and challenging yet. "Gary," he said, "is about taking a risk. This is a risk.

"Taylor has an agenda. He has a theatrical agenda. And part of the agenda is, I'm not here to make you comfortable. In fact, I may be here to make you feel uncomfortable. And yet we're still gonna have a lot of fun."

Bodies and body parts litter the stage set in "Gary." Mac wrote it as a sequel to Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus," a play in which, by the end, virtually everyone has been murdered.

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The performance artist and author Taylor Mac, who's made a career of challenging audience expectations, has written the unlikeliest of black comedies as a sequel to the Bard's most violent play. CBS News

Mac said, "I wasn't really so much interested in 'Titus Andronicus' as this little clown that was in 'Titus Andronicus,' that has a cameo role."

"Most people may have missed him," said correspondent John Blackstone.

"Most people would not remember it, even if you had seen it yesterday you probably would not remember the clown from 'Titus Andronicus'!" he laughed. 

Picking up where Shakespeare left off, Mac has written the unlikeliest of black comedies complete with jokes about flatulance, body parts, and other things we can't show on TV, all of which disguise a potent political message.

"All of us have to clean up after our particular political system that's falling apart right now," said Mac. "And eventually we are going to have to pick up the pieces rather than just continue to fight each other. We're gonna have to pick up the pieces. So, what is that gonna look like, and who's gonna have to do it? And how are we going to do it, is the bigger question."

Taylor Mac is determined to keep asking those questions, and telling stories in new and unexpected ways. He told his interviewer, "So, what story are you choosing to tell? Right now, you're telling a casual, professional story to the world. You're wearing your I'm-interviewing-an-artist drag, right? I'm wearing my 'I'm-being-interviewed-by-CBS drag, right?

"So, I wanna look a little colorful, but also a little bit more like, 'Oh, people on "Sunday Morning" can invite me into their home!"

Blackstone asked, "So, all the world's a stage indeed?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, Shakespeare said it best, yeah, and usually does!"

       
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Story produced by Anthony Laudato.