Back in the early 1960s, when movie legend Stanley Kubrick began writing a screenplay based on the novel Red Alert, a tense thriller about the potential for nuclear apocalypse between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., he slowly began to realize that there was no serious way to deal with the subject — it was just too absurd. The result was the classic macabre comedy he called Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Something similar must have occurred to Taylor Mac, the brilliant drag performer and playwright, upon seeing the early Shakespearean tragedy Titus Andronicus. Titus, set in the later years of the Roman Empire, is a tale of greed, political ambition, and revenge (not unlike Macbeth or Hamlet) involving the succession of emperors and the spoils of war. By the end, most of the cast is slaughtered, hands and tongues are severed, and remains are mashed into pies eaten by unknowing diners. The violence is relentless, pointless, and, from an observer’s point of view, ridiculous. The play, though it has found some admirers in recent years (and was adapted to film by Julie Taymor, with Anthony Hopkins as Titus), is one of Shakespeare’s worst.
The prodigiously talented Mr. Mac had an ingenious idea: he decided to make a sequel to Titus Andronicus, turning some extremely minor characters into leads (à la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). He took an unnamed clown, who is sent off to be hanged after a brief appearance, and christened him Gary, repurposing him as a maid tasked with cleaning up a room full of corpses. The seasoned maid whom Gary assists in this endeavor (a character who is barely present in Shakespeare) was given the name Janice by the playwright, and a “nurse” or midwife who magically survives having her throat slit became Carol. Most important, Mac switched the tone of this bloodbath from tragedy to comedy. His centerpiece, instead of the sensational brutality of the Shakespeare version, is the disgusting aspects of the cleanup, with an emphasis on bodily fluids: corpses farting upon being squeezed; characters vomiting in distress; penises squirting pee; blood and feces siphoned into buckets. It’s almost all played for laughs — raucously and clownishly, to be sure, but also perfectly logically.
Because Mac focuses on the worker bees in this story of noble ambition gone awry, it gives the audience an entry point as outsiders to giggle guiltlessly at the bloody human foibles of ancient Rome. Gary and Janice speak with cockney accents, and Carol, as a midwife, is more middle-class. Mac shifts the point of the play from exposing the excesses of power to the needs and dreams of the exploited general population. As a result, the human dimension endures through the gags: when Janice bemoans the plight of her mistress, Lavinia — she is raped and dismembered in the Shakespeare — it’s genuinely poignant.
In 2019, the play, championed by Scott Rudin, was produced on Broadway. Nathan Lane starred as Gary and Shakespeare Festival vet George C. Wolfe directed. It was eagerly anticipated but received mixed reviews and ran only a couple of months.
Now, the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater has revived the play in a truly inspired production, directed by R.J. Tolan, that should put any doubts about it to rest. The performers — Layla Khoshnoudi as Gary, A.J. Clauss as Janice, and Lacy Allen as Carol — take comic timing to heights not usually seen in these parts. Casting Gary and Janice in opposite genders is a nifty gesture, one that befits Mac’s drag background. Khoshnoudi is more of a sprite than a seasoned vaudevillian such as Nathan Lane, but she’s far more endearing, and her fourth-wall-breaking looks and asides create an electric connection. Clauss focuses on Janice’s professionalism and pragmatism and scores handily, especially as they play off Khoshnoudi’s impishness. Allen, much like her Hollywood namesake, Gracie, is dizzy in the best way.
Tolan, who previously (and splendidly) directed Five Times in One Night and Lenin’s Embalmers at WHAT, seems to know just how far to take the mortuary high jinks. The anachronistic use of British accents in ancient Rome, as well as cartoonish Elizabethan clothes and hairdos, serves as a perfect mismatched backdrop for hilarity. And even when rhyme and vintage syntax are used, the actors manage to make their lines easily intelligible. The set, by Jacob A. Climer, who also did the costumes, is monumental — its arched main chamber is like something one might find in grand opera. Indeed, all the tech work is superlative, including the lighting by John Salutz and the sound and music by Grace Oberhofer (pop songs in Latin-ish translation are thrown in, for good measure).
Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus triumphantly makes a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Mac has said he was inspired by our era of Trumpian madness to update the Titus saga, and, as the fate of our democracy still hangs in the balance, it’s nice to see a comedy, however dark, call us to action. The WHAT production is a gift and, for all those interested in seeing what a theater company can accomplish on the Outer Cape, a must-see.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Autocracy
The event: Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, a play by Taylor Mac
The time: Through Aug. 19, Tuesday through Saturday (and Monday, Aug. 15) at 8 p.m.
The place: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, 2357 Route 6
The cost: $25-$40; seniors $22.50-$36; students $15; plus $2.50 fee at what.org or 508-349-9428