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As part of The Gender Project, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus-wide conversation this year, which focuses on gender and identity, Playmakers Repertory Company (PRC2 series) is presenting the playwright/performer Taylor Mac in his The Young Ladies Of… The show is staged in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the UNC Center for Dramatic Art, which is an excellent size and configuration for a one-person show. As directed by Tracy Trevett and designed by David Evans Morris and Juliet Chia, the show maximizes the spatial and technical potential of the small theater for this story of a search for identity, connection and self-definition.
The Young Ladies of… is a sometimes-trying, sometimes touching, pastiche. Pastiche is the artist’s word; perhaps, he has co-opted it, the way the pink triangle was co-opted, to cleanse it of its derogatory connotation and claim it as a positive symbol of queer pride. However, pastiche still retains its meaning of “hodgepodge” and carries with it the idea of snippets combined from earlier source materials and arranged by the artist as fresh creative work. Occasionally, the ideas and metaphors and references in this play do exceed the artist’s control in arranging them, and devolve into hodgepodge. But mostly what Mac does is too original to be correctly called pastiche: Connecting ideas and patterns, he makes a rich texture of thought and feeling; a pieced and layered performance imbued with the sensibilities of the collagist and the filmmaker as well as those of the musical-theater lover, and the nonconformist drag queen.
The show is supposed to be outrageous and provocative. Maybe I see too much art theater, but it didn’t seem that way to me. What’s another guy in a dress, playing the ukulele atop a ladder? (He sings better than Tiny Tim, thank goodness.) The play is sweet, and it becomes beautiful in the way it gets around to acknowledging the universal human yearning to be known and loved for oneself. But its thrashing over of assumptions, expectations and rules about gender behavior seems very 1970s, even while its “Look at me!” autobiographical qualities clearly derive from the current Age of Memoir. I opted out of the culture of conformity and practice of homogeneity so long ago that I have a hard time maintaining interest in this decade’s self-referential fantasia on a conflict I’ve left behind. However, my 20-something companion assures me that the gender wars are still raging — the same narrow paths are laid out; the same torments prepared for those who go a different way.
Although I found the gender diatribes to be sometimes boring, and the ditzy style (sudden verbal reversals, manic repetitions, tangential excursions and circumlocutions, abetted by much pointless movement) exasperating and reductive of empathy for the character, I was entranced by the visual experience of the play. The stage design, with its slide-show visuals, and the physical props are very good, especially the thousands of letters (from the Young Ladies) dropped from above and hurled by the actor from trunk and box into an eroding mound on the stage. Taylor Mac has some fine-looking legs, and they are well-displayed in his ragged tulle fairy gown/christening gown/goddess tunic/ball dress. Mac’s make-up is gorgeous, coruscating with crystals around the eyes. Above the dress, a Pagliacci visage gleams under a tousled mop of blonde curls, and the lighting plays off the sad clown’s face with a wide palette of expressive effects.
Throughout the play, a song from Carousel recurs: “Is it worth wondering?” Sometimes referring to Mac’s quest for knowledge of his missing father, sometimes a broader philosophical query, that question can only be answered with “yes.” We breathe, we wonder. An artist like Mac makes up the answers the universe forgot to provide. If you don’t like them, you can make up your own.
The Young Ladies of… continues at PRC2 through Sunday, January 11th. See our calendar for details.