This play is long, we're told from the get-go. That's no joke. Clocking in at more than four hours, with five acts and three intermissions, The Lily's Revenge is less an evening of entertainment than a cheeky test of endurance.
Whether you enjoy it will depend on your personality. If you're the sort of person who would attend a stranger's wedding just for kicks, then Taylor Mac's boisterous theatrical extravaganza might be just your speed. If, however, you're even a little bit curmudgeonly and antisocial, if you're protective of your personal space, and if you cling to the notion that even Hamlet is better after judicious cutting, then you might get a little restless around the three-hour mark.
Okay, a lot restless.
The Lily's Revenge, making its West Coast premiere at Magic Theatre, is a gobsmackingly impressive display of talent and craft, all in the service of far too many concepts. Six directors lend their vision to the show. Thirty-one actors crowd the stage. Mac's overstuffed script includes a cerebral meditation on the "tyranny of nostalgia," an impressive range of simulated sex acts, and multiple references to Heidegger and Hegel. The result is high-mindedly academic and bracingly crude. It's also more repetitious than any show should be.
Each act falls under the guidance of a different director. In Act I, TheatreWorks' Meredith McDonough introduces us to the principal characters, from a Lily (Mac) who dreams of being an actor to a stage curtain (Mollena Williams) who represents the conservative oppressiveness of "institutionalized nostalgia." We also meet Time (Jeri Lynn Cohen), the mother of nostalgia, who wants the Lily to embrace the "here and now." (This being an allegory, or rather what Mac calls a "flowergory," all of the representations are as literal as anything you'll find in John Bunyan.) At the end of the first act, the Lily declares that he will transform himself into a man and wed the woman of his dreams.
The second act, under the direction of Crowded Fire's Marissa Wolf, finds our hero encountering a group of flowers — gorgeously costumed by Lindsay Davis — who speak primarily in iambic pentameter. Act III is the work of Erika Chong Shuch, who has done fantastic work for Shotgun Players in Berkeley. She fashions the most memorable sequence, described by one character as "a nightmare within a dream ballet." Crowded Fire's Erin Gilley is on hand to direct the multimedia-heavy Act IV, and Jessica Holt of Three Wise Monkeys concludes the show with a raucous (if overextended) finale. The sixth director, Climate Theater's Jessica Heidt, offers up a series of whimsical miniperformances in the common areas during each intermission.
In spite of the presence of so many directors, one thing remains constant: Almost all of the action takes place at the same frenetic level. Almost none of the characters talk when they can shout, and none of them walk when they can run. If this were a standard 90-minute farce, that would be fine, but The Lily's Revenge gradually overwhelmed my ability to process new stimuli. By the fifth act, no amount of outrageousness would have been sufficient to excite me; instead, I just wanted to go to a quiet spot and do some emergency yoga.
I wasn't the only audience member battling fatigue long before the final curtain. During the first intermission, I asked the couple next to me if they were enjoying themselves. They grimaced.
"Is it just me," I asked, "or does it feel like the actors are having way more fun than the audience?"
"That's exactly how I feel," one said. "It's like we're watching an extended inside joke." By the second intermission, we agreed that the play had officially become tedious. By Act IV, that couple was nowhere to be seen, slipping away like a noticeable number of audience members over the course of the evening.
The Lily's Revenge is most effective in small, isolated moments, when the performers show why they're among the Bay Area's best. El Beh plays a gorgeous cello, and even serenades you on her ukulele when you go to the restroom during intermission. (See note on "personal space" above.) Casi Maggio makes a brilliant entrance out of a life-size puppet's birth canal and then shows off a remarkable set of pipes for the remainder of the evening. Joe Estlack proves that you really can play an accordion while wearing nothing but Superman underwear. The third act includes a vigorous and instructive demonstration of acrobatic cunnilingus by a crew of pansexual flower girls. And Mac himself is a pleasure to watch as the Lily, our put-upon hero who just wants to get married.
Unless you're a Moonie from Marin, the show's conclusion will probably strike you as excessively rosy. Standing on the stage with his cheerful mob of actors, Mac asks the audience to imagine what it would be like if everybody on the planet married everybody else. (I'm pretty sure that's what he said, but please keep in mind that by this point I was basically delirious.) Some people will find this idea charming and will smile beatifically at the thought of forming an eternal bond with every other living soul. Yes, reader: Some people will love this idea, and love it extravagantly. Others, I'm told, will take it as their cue to vomit quietly in their mouths.
You know who you are.