Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Here in the Bay Area, we tend to have a much broader range from which to choose. Yes, American Conservatory Theatre puts A Christmas Carol on the boards every December, but the Theatre of Yugen does its A Noh Christmas Carol, ODC/Dance annually gives us The Velveteen Rabbit, and New Conservatory Theatre Center seems to be turning its production of Avenue Q into a tradition, even though its only connection to the holiday is that one of the characters is named Christmas Eve. And Lauren Gunderson has created another offshoot of her holiday brand with The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, which just opened at Marin Theatre Company.
But no one is stirring the holiday cauldron with greater ferocity than MacArthur "genius grant" honoree and drag queen extraordinaire Taylor Mac, whose Holiday Sauce opened last night at The Curran. In fact, with the help of costume and set designer Machine Dazzle, Mac transformed the theater into judy's (Mac prefers the personal pronoun "judy") own cauldron, into which judy promised to throw all the stress and angst of the outside worldincluding "the guts of Donald Trump"to transform it into something spectacular and healing.
There's no narrative thread to the showit's simply a collection of songs (from "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and "Silent Night" to the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York," which includes the unforgettable lines: "You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggotHappy Christmas, your arse, I pray God it's our last.") and musings and reminiscences from Mac about holidays past and judy's take on life and performancewhich, for Mac, are one and the same.
In fact, though there may be no narrative, there is a thread running through this show as strong as one of the steel cables holding up the Golden Gate Bridge, and it's Taylor Mac's individual artistic vision.
And what a vision! Inspired by judy's drag mentor, Mother Flawless Sabrina, who told Mac "irreverence is a toolnot a way of life," Mac tears into holiday traditions, reframing them with a sublimely queer sensibility. This is most notable in judy's deconstruction/appropriation of the classic Christmas hymn, "O Holy Night." Mac keeps the lyrics of the gorgeous, anthemic tune, but stops the music every time there is a word of phrase judy wants to redefine. "Holy" gets a different (and visual) interpretation, "sin" is meant to call up "capitalism," and you can imagine where things go during the line "fall on your knees." It's bitingly irreverent, but if one of the goals of the holiday season is to bring people together, Mac succeeds wildly, as the entire audience at the performance I attended stood and sang along, performing the gestures Mac had demonstrated during the first playing of the song.
Mac's credo is that "perfection is for assholes," but there is something flawless about Mac's artistry, as judy is never less than fully committed to judy's vision. As Mother Flawless Sabrina drummed into judy, "Normal is just a setting on the dryer," and nothing here conforms to a usual or typical standard. Everything is surprising and delightfully off-kilter. When Mac enters, judy is wearing a costume that makes Mac look like a spangled holly bush that has been ripped from the garden by its candy cane roots. And it only gets weirder and more magicaland occasionally touchingafter that.
Mac declares early on in the show, "if you're heterosexual, you won't understand a thing that goes on tonight." That's not entirely true, but this is a very gay (in the two best senses of the word) show, and a marvelously successful attempt to reclaim holiday tropes for those of a queer sensibility. As Mac states, "I like spiritualityI just like it in the corner."
Mac does not accomplish this feat on judy's own. Far from it, for in addition to a tight, energetic nine-piece orchestra, judy has brought along a troupe of drag queens, radical faeiries, and "dandy minions" to crank the queerness up to 11not to mention the elder choir that takes up residence in two of the boxes for some of the numbers.
The holidays are often about glitz and excess and celebration and family and memory. And on that scale, Taylor Mac's Holiday Sauce represents the pinnacle of yuletide joy better than any hackneyed production of A Christmas Carol ever could.
Taylor Mac's Holiday Sauce, through December 1, 2018, at The Curran, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $29-$125, and can be purchased by visiting sfcurran.com, calling 415-358-1220, or visiting the box office between 10:00am and 6:00pm Monday - Friday.