I saw Taylor Mac's Comparison is Violence, or The Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook last night. It was much, much funnier than I expected, and Mac did some of the best crowd work I've ever seen, through a combination of provocation, bullying, and an implied "you're not a fully actualized person unless you're willing to get onstage and make a fool of yourself." Mac disarmed the crowd by first explaining why he hates audience participation—because it feels like a performer trying to impose their own definition of fun on the audience; because if you play along you feel like a conformist and if you don't you feel like an asshole—and then proceeded to force everyone to play along. At one point, he asked all the audience members who were there with their "lovers" to raise their hands, promising he wouldn't embarrass anyone. And once hands were up, he promptly clambered into the audience and picked on some folks. As he put it, "I'm a drag performer. I don't dress this way so you'll trust me." I'm not sure I've ever seen a performer work a crowd so effectively. Plus, he does a mean Bowie cover.
Now, in a way it's a tough show to come to a consensus about—Mac's clearly working from a general structure and improvising some of the details pretty wildly. I saw it yesterday, and Mac incorporated a handful of references to the 9/11 anniversary; plus, it was outrageously hot at Washington High, and he encouraged audience members to take off items of clothing over the course of the show. (I can safely say it's the only theater performance I've ever seen that ended with audience members in their underwear.) But I've taking some issue with the comments of other Merc writers who saw the show:
Apparently there was a year or two in his career in which almost every journalist he either talked to or who reviewed his work compared him both to David Bowie (because of his love for glam) and to Tiny Tim (because of Mac's use of a ukulele). Finding this both offensive and hilarious Mac then decided to create a piece that would not only embrace these assumptions, but by doing so, show how we as a thinking society use comparisons to lazily judge and degrade one another. A poignant point to make, one that Mac calls back to throughout the night while dissecting personal anecdotes and discussing theater history, but one that I thought was ultimately diminished by the format of the evening; that being cabaret. Now I don't have anything against cabaret, I think it an authentic take on performance, and one (as Mac points out) that has been around for ages, but for Mac's purposes it felt as though cabaret created too casual of an atmosphere to say anything of real gravity.
I'd agree, Noah, that when all was said and done it felt... I dunno. Kind of slight? Mac made a lot of good, clever, and sometimes very moving points, but the overall performance didn't cohere so much as it felt like a lot of kickass Bowie covers interspersed with some really smart, surprising, engaging stage banter.
I don't agree with either of these criticisms, which isn't to say I don't have one of my own. My problem with the show was that Mac felt the need to explain so clearly what he was up to: "Comparison is violence," he said at one point. Yes, we know, it's in the title of the show. Mac himself drew attention to the fact that he did some lecturing last night, noting its appropriateness since he was performing in a school, after all. A good teacher, though, lets a student make connections for themselves; Mac provided those connections for us, and I kind of wish he hadn't.
That being said, however, I found a lot to think about in Comparison Is Violence. While the place he started from is unique to his experience of being compared to both Tiny Tim and Ziggy Stardust, he successfully universalized that experience (no small feat) to argue that comparisons are often a facile way of avoiding authentic emotional or intellectual engagement. At one point—the show's cutest moment—he picked a couple out of a the audience, and asked the man to compare his wife/girlfriend to something found in nature. The dude picked "cool water"—which, given that it was a million degrees in that auditorium, was incredibly sweet. Here, I think, he's demonstrating that metaphorical comparisons are more resonant and artful than literal ones. Or, to paraphrase a point he made later: The realism of Law and Order is much newer and stranger than the language of the theater. Replacing verisimilitude (you remind me of my ex-girlfriend) with poetry (you remind me of a cool drink of water)—well, at the very least it probably got that dude laid.
And as for whether cabaret is the appropriate medium to communicate something significant—or whether Mac occasionally busting into Bowie covers diminished the gravity of the evening—I don't even really understand the question. That razor's edge between comedy and tragedy (which Rude Mechs almost literally address, in that gag where their actors pretend to cry) is one of my favorite places to be; I wish serious things were discussed in unserious contexts more often. Plus, I really enjoyed/appreciated Mac's capsule history of drag and transgressive performance art; and I thought the weaving together of songs by all the artists discussed in the show made for a pretty cool auditory timeline.
I think that's all I have to say about that.
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