By Mark Blankenship
A few weeks ago, director Rachel Chavkin paused rehearsal for The Lily’s Revenge
and pondered: When a giant tick drags a wounded daisy into the hallway, how many screams does it take to make the exit funny?
For The Lily’s Revenge
, that’s a standard question. Now in its world premiere at HERE Arts Center, it started four years ago as a one-act piece with a handful of actors. As he developed the script, however, playwright and performance artist Taylor Mac decided to go further. After all, he was not only creating a fable about a lily on a quest to become human, but also exploring dense ideas about marriage, community, and the danger of nostalgia.
So now the show’s an epic. It has five acts, over forty cast members, and runs just under five hours. Live songs are played throughout, and the elaborate costumes, which turn actors into everything from man-sized flowers to walking diseases, feature six billion sequins, give or take.
Simply finishing this production, much less making it coherent, has been an enormous challenge, yet everything hangs together. The play tells a clear story about Lily’s (Mac) desire to become a man and marry the woman it loves. During that journey, the piece argues that living with nostalgia—with a romanticized notion of “how things ought to be”— keeps us from experiencing the world. As Lily struggles to accept itself and be accepted, we see heartrending evidence that our cultural traditions restrict as much as they console.
To make his play more manageable, Mac broke it into bits, assigning each act to a different director. “Taylor encouraged us off the bat to create five separate plays,” says Chavkin. She directed act two, which is set in an underworld where flowers plot revenge on the humans who treat them like pretty accessories.
Eventually, however, pieces have to form a whole. “I didn’t see any of the other acts until we started running the whole thing,” Chavkin says. “And then I freaked out. I was thinking, ‘Oh no, my act is killing the play. My act isn’t funny.’”
She realized, though, that her act wasn’t supposed to be funny: Even though it features giant talking flowers, it also depicts an exploited group revolting against the people who abuse them.
In order to make her portion feel connected to the rest of the show, Chavkin highlighted the intense emotion that runs through the script. In a nod to the outrageous comedy of act one, when Lily starts its quest, she also opened with the aforementioned bit about the tick and the daisy. The injured flower screams so much that its pain becomes absurdly funny.
David Drake noticed how Chavkin handled this moment, but then again, he had to notice everything. As the director of act five, he was responsible for tying all the show’s pieces together. “Visiting the other acts’ rehearsals and speaking with their directors offered me a sampling of each directors’ specific style, tone, and physical language,” he says. “It also gave me confirmation that we were all on the same page about characters and actions.”
Crucially, Drake and the other directors all favored a similar acting style: The actors give large, highly theatrical performances, but their work feels sincere.
Asked how that happened, Drake says, “I understood that you had to be truthful and honest when doing this over-the-top work. I said, ‘Think that we’re doing this play at the Metropolitan Opera and you have to reach the balcony.’ We’re not at the Metropolitan Opera, of course—the space is smaller than the performances—but that’s a way of remembering that ‘big’ can still mean ‘honest.’”
Despite his clear ideas, Drake says working with over forty cast members at once was difficult. So was realizing Mac’s vision, which included things like a massive curtain made out of cocktail napkins. He says, “Taylor gives you impossible stage directions, but you have to stop and say, ‘This isn’t impossible. We just have to figure out how to do it. We have to adapt.’”
Mac himself has adapted his idea of what the show means. “It’s always had an element of how we use tradition and nostalgia to oppress people and how we need to create new traditions,” he says. “But the community aspect is more important to me now than all the political issues.
The weddings in the play—especially the surprising union that ends the show—evoke that sense of community. Mac says, “I’ve started thinking about weddings as a way of saying to the people around you, ‘Hey, we are offering ourselves as a union to you. We’re more than just ourselves now, and we have more resources to offer you.’”
“I want to say something similar to an audience,” he continues. “Instead of just ‘love me,’ it can be, ‘We are here for you. We are in a community in this theatre, and we are here for you.’”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor.