CAMBRIDGE — The performers in T-shirts and sweats in the drab basement rehearsal space off Harvard Square could be limbering up for any show. It’s only when you eye the costume drawings lining one wall that you realize something unusual is afoot. Giant flowers, Day-Glo colors, outrageous patterns — it’s Dr. Seuss meets Studio 54, a fabulous hothouse.
This is the American Repertory Theater production of “The Lily’s Revenge,” Taylor Mac’s wild fantasia about a flower who wants to take a human bride. Performances begin Friday and continue through Oct. 28 at Oberon.
With five acts and a cast of 32, the show is an epic, estimated to run 4½ hours, borrowing theatrical styles ranging from Japanese noh to musical theater dream ballet, and featuring four live musicians, a silent film, and seating that’s reconfigured for each act.
Its beginnings were far simpler.
“At first it was just me on the ukulele, and I sang this 10-minute-long song that’s not even in the piece [now],” Mac says, lounging wearily on a worn couch in the hallway outside the rehearsal room. “I try not to be precious about things and just let them go.”
But the play arose from a juxtaposition that he couldn’t let go, back in 2004. As Mac tells it, he’d watched a documentary about activists trying to deposit the remains of loved ones who’d died of AIDS on the White House lawn during the first Bush presidency, to protest official homophobia and indifference to the epidemic. Then he saw reports of flowers piling up at the White House to mark the death of Ronald Reagan.
“Just the irony of the two things together really just sparked this idea,” says Mac, who plays the title character in “The Lily’s Revenge.”
The play is often taken as being simply an allegory about gay marriage, but Mac says that’s a “reductive” view. He wants equality, he wants his rights, but says he’s not interested in gay marriage himself. “I’m interested in furthering the conversation of what equality is and how myths and traditions either help us in our present lives or tear us apart,” he says.
“The Lily’s Song” on ukulele turned into much more over the next several years. First there were a dozen performers, and the cast and running time kept growing.
“How I write is, the content dictates the form,” says Mac, 39, who splits his time between New York and a home in the Berkshires. “So if I was telling a story about how myths and traditions are used to foster or tear apart community, then the form needed to be something that could encompass a community.”
Eventually he shaped a plot in which a wedding is afoot, the Lily decides he wants to marry the bride but is at first thwarted, and a theater curtain known as The Great Longing has spread a plague of nostalgia across the land.
“I’m really the little man behind the curtain, like the Wizard of Oz,” says ART veteran Thomas Derrah, who plays The Great Longing. “I’m exposed as a windy little man who doesn’t really have a lot of power, and the redemption comes at the very end when he admits in an elegant little haiku that it’s really all about balance.” Derrah adds, “Nostalgia’s fine as long as it doesn’t become all-consuming. But you have to look forward and backward at the same time and somehow meet in the middle.”
The extravaganza is filled with acting and singing and dancing and haiku and iambic pentameter and much, much more.
“The vast majority of people that come and see the show say they wish it were longer, which is just kind of a cheeky way of saying, ‘We don’t mind the time,’ ” Mac says. “But I’ve worked really hard to invite people into the experience. How do we invite them into it so all different kinds of people can experience it, not just people who are used to long form or who are used to a queer aesthetic, but
The play debuted in 2009 at HERE Arts Center in New York, won an Obie Award, and was subsequently produced in San Francisco, both times with Mac in the lead role.
“It kills me, this play,” he says with a smile, covering his face with his hands. “It’s my third time now and it kills me. It’s so worth it, but it’s definitely not easy as a process.”
Curiously, making it easier meant having fewer people at the helm. Instead of six directors — one for each of five acts and the intermission entertainments, as in the previous productions — here there is only one.
“He’s done it twice, where he’s the playwright and he’s the lead actor, and he found there wasn’t another person thinking about the whole picture, so then he also had to be the artistic overseer. And when I first met with him, he said it’s just too much,” explains Shira Milikowsky, the artistic director fellow at the ART, who has taken on the directing job.
Milikowsky was living in New York when “The Lily’s Revenge” premiered. “You couldn’t sell your soul for a ticket,” she says. “I tried so hard to see it and I couldn’t get in. And now I feel like that was very lucky, because if I had seen another production, it would have been harder to direct my own version of it now.”
Her ears perked up when she heard the show might be on the schedule in Cambridge.
“What’s daunting is the time management,” she says. “It’s an exercise in trusting the talents of others. Sometimes as director we like to be in full control of everything, but this time the exercise is different. It’s bringing on [collaborators] I really believe in and having the faith to say, ‘You go there and work on that, and you go there and work on that.’ And then I check in.”
The cast also includes Remo Airaldi as Master Sunflower, John Kuntz as Poppy, Alexander Cook and Margaret Ann Brady as Flower Girl Deities, and Samantha Eggers as Time. The wild costume design is by Sarah Cubbage.
Despite the scale of the show, it has the same rehearsal time as most plays at the ART — 3½ weeks.
“I’m not going to say it’s not a challenge,” says Milikowsky, who this summer read the entire 166-page script every day for four weeks. “I have not done anything else for months. This is all I’m doing. I am just so inside this world.”
To Milikowsky, the play is about community, about what we want from it, what we put into it, and how different people can coexist — even a few dozen people tackling a “mountain” of a show in a Cambridge basement.