Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music
Curran Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's reviews of The Legend of Pink, Reefer Madness, An American in Paris, How I Learned to Drive and Back from Iraq and Patrick's reviews of Luna Gale and Ain't Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations

Taylor Mac
Photo by Teddy Wolff
Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is, according to its creator, not theatre, but performance art. As such, judy asserts, judy is immune from negative criticism or audience reaction. ("judy" is the personal pronoun Mac prefers instead of "he" or "she.") Even if we hate everything about the performance, judy has still succeeded. For Mac, in performance art there is "no failure—just a perpetual consideration."

There is a lot to consider, for A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, is 24 hours long, one hour for each decade, from 1776 to the present. Last October at St. Ann's Warehouse in New York, Mac performed the entire show in one 24-hour stretch. Here in San Francisco, Mac has divided the show into four six-hour segments. This week I caught Chapter 2, which covers the period from 1836-1896. The final two chapters will be presented on September 22 and September 24.

It's more than simply running time that makes A 24-Decade History of Popular Music a lot to take in: there's also the tsunami of color and form of the costumes created by longtime Mac collaborator Machine Dazzle; the legion of dozens of "dandy minions" (dressed in varying degrees of fun, funky, fabulous and freaky) who roam the house assisting Mac and engaging the audience; and an assortment of vaudeville-like acts who take the stage while Mac changes costumes, or sits with the band and sings while these other performers take center stage for a few minutes.

That stage is also crowded with 18 musicians—winnowed to 12 by the time the performance is at its end: the show begins with 24 players, and one is dropped every hour until, by the final hour of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, only Mac will be onstage with a piano and ukulele.

Mac is right in calling this performance art and not theatre, because it is unlike any theatrical experience I've had, if for no other reason than the level of audience participation that is required. At various times during the afternoon/evening (the show ran from 2:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., just under its scheduled six-hour running time), we threw ping-pong balls at each other in a mock civil war battle, assisted in the passing out of snacks, and staged slo-mo fights with people in the rows in front and in back of us. Some audience members get even more deeply involved and can end up on stage for an hour or more, playing the role of Stephen Foster or guests at a family dinner. I suppose "required" isn't the perfect word since you can just sit back and be a non-participant, but the experience wouldn't be the same. Even my normally non-participative theatre-going companion (who almost never even claps along when a performer asks) was flinging ping-pong balls and passing out pretzel packs almost as if he were a member of the cast.

From a purely theatrical standpoint, Taylor Mac is both brilliant and boring. He has a big, almost Broadway-style voice, a easy stage presence (even behind the costumes and head pieces), and an engaging manner in terms of audience interaction. Mac is so confident and forceful in finding volunteers, that judy was denied not once during the performance. It's hard to complain about something running on too long when it's billed as being six hours long (and actually runs only five and a half!), but I did feel the production of The Mikado on Mars went on far too long—though the epic smackdown between Walt Whitman and Stephen Foster to determine who should "The Father of American Song" could have gone on and on if I'd had my way, so entranced was I by Mac's recitation of several of Whitman's poems.

The sheer scale of Mac's efforts must be taken into account in terms of any critical judgment. (This next bit may seem a bit odd, but bear with me.) You may or may not be familiar with Jewelry Television, a shopping channel that you can probably find somewhere in your list of basic cable channels. JTV (as its known) has a strange, almost perverse appeal for me. What makes it so is the irrepressible energy and confidence of the on-air salespeople. They are so impassioned about gems and jewelry, and so unflagging in their energy in pitching items that have zero practical value (shiny rocks! weavings and reformings of melted metals!), that it can be hard to look away. You can't watch JTV for a few minutes and understand what makes it special: you have to stay tuned for 30 minutes, or an hour or more, and realize that they have no commercial breaks, and have to maintain that level of energy and engagement for up to four hours straight, to truly appreciate the phenomenon. Watch and see. Just don't blame me if you end up buying a pair of chrome diopside stud earrings.

It's sort of the same with Mac. Just when you are about to become bored, you realize judy has been on stage for almost five hours and you can't help but be impressed by the stamina and skill of this seasoned performer.

Curran and Stanford Live, in association with Magic Theatre and Pomegranate Arts, present A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco. The final two chapters play: Chapter 3 on September 22 at 5pm; and Chapter 4 on September 24 at 2pm. Tickets range from $49-$285, and can be purchased by visiting, calling 415-358-1220, or visiting the box office between 10:00am and 6:00pm Monday-Friday.