Wealthy, powerful people wage wars to become wealthier and more powerful. But they aren’t the ones forced to clean up afterwards.
Theater creator and provocateur Taylor Mac’s comic tale of post-chaos custodians, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, opens Sept. 10 at Oakland Theater Project.
A controversial, Tony Award-nominated success on Broadway in 2019, this production of Gary is a Bay Area premiere. And director and cast are reveling in the chance to plunge into its deeply black humor, following the story of Gary, a clown; Janis, a maid; and Carol, a midwife. Minor characters like them appear in Shakespeare’s early, blood-soaked play, but here, versions of them are the main focus.
Director Emilie Whelan was familiar with, and not crazy about, Titus Andronicus before being asked to direct the show. “I found Titus Andronicus overwhelming. It’s a very violent play and not good to women,” she said. “Not good” being a dry understatement about a play which features a woman being revenge-raped, her tongue and hands cut off.
But she was also very familiar with Taylor Mac’s work, even appearing in a production of his acclaimed The Lily’s Revenge in New Orleans.
With Gary, she “loved the idea of who has to clean up the mess?” and was intrigued with the challenge of staging a piece that calls for hundreds of corpses on stage. “The haves making the mess, and the have-nots cleaning it up, is timeless,” she said. “It’s also a deeply queer play. And in 2023, everyone should be seeing a comedy.”
In a sort-of-post-pandemic era, which is also a seemingly never-post-Trump era, people “are absorbing something that’s too big to hold,” she said. “Do we clean it up, or crumple it up and create something brand new? How do we work together to move forward to joy?”
Whelan comes from a “devised theater” background, meaning designers, actors, director and sometimes the playwright work collaboratively to create a production. She is using this concept while rehearsing Gary. In an initial two-week rehearsal process, she and the actors made a “draft” of the show. In the final weeks of rehearsal, the designers entered the picture and now everyone together is talking about “what might stay and what might blow away,” she said.
“Gary himself is a devising director [of the play-within-a-play in the script],” Whelan pointed out.
Design plays a major role in Gary, as, somehow, the hundreds of bodies have to be portrayed. In this case, a doll-maker is building bodies that can “move around and do a lot,” she said. “There is so much volunteer work going into the production. [We have to figure out] how to do more joy with less dollars.”
Jomar Tagatac, who plays Gary, didn’t know the play before being asked to audition by OTP. But he was familiar with Taylor Mac’s work, especially A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, and knew Titus Andronicus from his previous work in Shakespeare. “I started reading the play, and I was charmed by it,” he said. “It’s not Shakespearean verse, but it has a rhythm I was drawn to.”
The words of the piece may be relatively simple, but “the ideas are revelatory and funny,” he said.
Tagatac received his master’s at the American Conservatory Theatre and while there received clown training with a teacher who asked all her students to create their own clown. Like many clowns, he said, his came from “where I was as a child. From there came both the funny and the heartbreak.”
This work helped him as he developed his version of Gary. “Gary says what he says,” Tagatac said. “He has no filter. He is flawed. He makes mistakes.” But Mac created depth in the characters in this play. The result, Tagatac said, is “a chain of ideas.”
Tagatac finds the rehearsal process challenging, but productive. After the two-week break, he needed to “re-start the ball,” but described interacting directly with the designers as facilitating his thoughts about his character. “I can say, ‘This is what I’m thinking of,’” he said, creating a conversation about costumes, props and lighting.
What’s surprised him as he discovers his character is “Gary’s power. Gary’s body can move. But what has surprised and excited me the most is the power of [his] thoughts and the power of [his] words.”
Both Whelan and Tagatac are sure that those not deeply familiar with Titus Andronicus will have no problem navigating Gary. For one thing, they both noted, a section at the beginning of the play gives a super-succinct summary of the Shakespeare tragedy, including Gary proclaiming, “That Titus bloke is dead; now I’m the lead!”
“All you need to know is that there’s a lot of blood in Titus Andronicus,” said Whelan. She noted that Mac wrote Gary during Donald Trump’s rise.
“For a long time, the political atmosphere has been so deep,” Tagatac said. “How do we function in a world [like this]?”
The Daily Beast wrote about the Broadway production: “It is an argument for art, and a passionate call for resistance—a pie of clashing ingredients just as is served for tea in the play.”
Although live theaters throughout the country struggle post-pandemic, Whelan and Tagatac believe theater is still the place where audiences can experience the classic catharsis described by the Greeks. Aristotle, for example, wrote that tragedy “cleansed the heart” through pity and terror. There’s plenty of pity and terror in Titus Andronicus, but what about the farcical, even slapstick humor in Gary?
Funny can be cathartic, too, they say. And this play “is so funny,” Whelan said. “If it’s speaking to the moment, if you leave feeling brighter—that’s a fire that catches and spreads.”
“Our tank of hope is low right now,” Tagatac said. “I think this play can let people walk away with real hope.”
‘Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,’ Oakland Theater Project, The Oakland Theater at FLAX art & design, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland. Previews, Sept. 8-9. Opens Sept. 10, plays through Oct. 1. Purchase tickets at oaklandtheaterproject.org/gary or by calling 510.646.1126. Livestream performance Sept. 23 at 7:30pm or on demand from Sept. 24 to Oct. 1.