In the opening scene of “The Lily’s Revenge,” is a staring contest between the audience and a clock. The character of Time, played by Samantha Eggers, sports a black dress in the form of an hourglass and a cuckoo clock on her head. After a few moments of gazing at the crowd before her, Time addresses the audience with not a welcome, but a warning: “This play is long,” she says. “In fact, this play will be much longer than advertised.”
Long, indeed, it is. With a running time of about four hours and twenty minutes, The American Repertory Theater’s production of “The Lily’s Revenge,” in residence at OBERON until October 28th, is certainly an epic dramatic piece. Playwright Taylor Mac’s five-act phantasmagorical creation is an ambitious blend of music, poetry, operetta, drag, and dance. Through the allegorical tale of a Lily—an anthropomorphic flower played by Mac himself)—who seeks to escape social confines by marrying a human bride, the show challenges tradition and social convention. Though at times drawn out and overly gaudy, “The Lily’s Revenge” can be praised for its high production quality and impressive scope that successfully create an interactive theatrical experience.
In Act I, Time states her mission: to bring an end to “institutionalized nostalgic narrative.” Instead of trying to view life through the lens of the past, she encourages society to take pleasure in what is real in the world, in the here and now. Time’s wishes are challenged by nostalgia and tradition, which are manifested by a villainous stage curtain called The Great Longing (Thomas Derrah). With devilish expressions and a despotic demeanor, The Great Longing tries to force the other characters to stage a classic wedding, the quintessential representation of tradition. The Lily aims to aid Time in the battle against the Curtain’s views of tradition by replacing the groom in the wedding. and marrying the bride.
The diverse means of expression are the production’s greatest sources of strength. Mac and director Shira Milikowsky collaborate to put forth brilliant displays of theatricality. Act III momentarily brings the audience out of the Lily’s story with an abstract dream ballet performed by Bride Love (Marisa Fratto) and Groom Love (Samson Kohanski) in which the previously glorified vision of marriage described by The Great Longing is questioned. The couple’s dance is a roller coaster of sex, abuse, fighting, and forgiving; in this dance the negative elements of marriage are explored for the first time.
Another moment of dramatic expertise occurs in the third act, when The Great Longing performs a striptease to represent the fall of tradition and his loss of control of the narrative. Derrah sheds his red velvet curtain costume to reveal a scanty g-string—symbolizing his newfound insecurity. Moments later, he regains control when he beats the actors of the ballet and forces them to dress him by pasting red cocktail napkins onto his bare body. Each napkin has a word or phrase that represents a typical human aspiration. This action continues in silence for a few moments, until the curtain is rebuilt and the act ends.
Breaking up the Lily’s five-act saga are three interactive intermissions. Unlike traditional breaks, the interludes at “The Lily’s Revenge” are all about audience participation. As the audience exit the theater, they are greeted by cast members who might lead them to their dressing room, offer a massage, compose a haiku, or invite unsuspecting viewers to a tea party. Even upon entering the bathroom, they are serenaded by a cast member in full costume. There is no time to stop, think, complain, or even check your watch. These engaging intermissions coupled with several instances of audience participation during the performance (warning: you may get licked by a flower), does well to make this piece of epic theater a truly interactive event.
In Act IV, Mac as the Lily stands center stage and tells as standing audience—at this point all the chairs have been removed—that he wishes to create community theater. Though the show is drawn out and very over-the-top, “The Lily’s Revenge” does succeed in creating an environment where the actors and the audience are able to directly interact with each other. Maybe the Lily has succeeded in creating the community he is trying so hard to bring to life.