ART’s ‘Lily’s Revenge’ is colorful, larky fun
CAMBRIDGE — At the beginning of "The Lily's Revenge,'' a haughty figure named Time, played by Samantha Eggers with a cuckoo clock on her head and two smaller clocks on her shoulders, warns the audience that the performance they're about to see will be "much longer than advertised. It is so long you may actually forget your name. . . . This play could very well last the rest of your life!''
If truth-in-advertising regulations applied to stage dialogue, plenty of plays would begin with similar warnings. But you're not likely to look at your own timepiece very often during the four hours and 20 minutes, including several intermissions, that it takes the American Repertory Theater production of "The Lily's Revenge'' to unfold at Oberon. There's too much to see, hear, and generally absorb.
A five-act phantasmagoria written and conceived by Taylor Mac and directed with finesse by Shira Milikowsky, "The Lily's Revenge'' blends satire, music, dance, verse, film, fable, and vaudevillian hijinks into a tale of an intrepid, pure-hearted flower named Lily (Mac), battling the forces of history, culture, and social convention in its bid to marry a human.
That might make the show sound cloying, cutesy, and ham-handed, and in truth, sometimes it's all those things. More often, though, you're caught up in its sheer, gaudy, irrepressible theatricality. If Busby Berkeley had dropped acid while watching "Pee-wee's Playhouse,'' the result might have been "The Lily's Revenge.''
In a very funny sequence just before Lily uproots itself from its baby-blue pot, Mac dons a top hat and twirls a cane, every inch a prima donna. The flower envisions its life to come as a showbiz fable, complete with adulatory crowds; producers and celebrities knocking on the dressing-room door; and introspective moments in front of the makeup mirror, when the hollowness of fame stands revealed.
For all its larky antics, an unmistakable message is woven throughout the dreamlike "Lily's Revenge,'' which premiered in New York in 2009 and won an Obie Award. It comes across as an allegory about gay marriage while making a broader argument for the simple freedom to love who you want, be who you are, and control your own story.
For Lily, that means breaking free of "institutionalized narrative'' and the suffocating, pervasive force of false nostalgia for a world that never existed. These spirit-constraining qualities are represented by The Great Longing, who proclaims that the Bride Deity, well played by Davina Cohen, cannot marry a flower.
Embodied as a fuming, tyrannical theater curtain, The Great Longing is portrayed by none other than Thomas Derrah, who pulls out all the stops. One of Boston's finest actors — his solo performance in the ART's "R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe'' was a wonder to behold — Derrah trades in Bucky's bow tie and three-piece suit for pasties and a G-string as he performs a protracted striptease routine that sets some kind of record for middle-aged actor daring.
It's not the only memorable sight. Visually, "The Lily's Revenge'' is a rainbow riot of color. Somewhere, Dame Edna is seething in envy at the over-the-top garishness of Sarah Cubbage's costumes. Mac is attired in an iridescent green jumpsuit from which five white petals jut. In Act 2 — the weakest part of the show — the verse-spouting Garden Flowers wear wigs and headdresses of purple, orange, and pink, while Remo Airaldi's Master Sunflower is adorned with a crown of giant yellow petals. I got a close-up view when Airaldi walked to my seat and proceeded to painstakingly lick my forehead, not once but twice, though I don't recall asking for an encore.
But hey, audience interaction is part of the ART aesthetic at Oberon, and very much part of "The Lily's Revenge,'' even during intermission, when performers fan out through and outside the club. Anyone venturing into the Oberon men's room during the first break at the opening performance would have encountered a fast-talking performer delivering a philosophical disquisition while scribbling theories on the mirror. It's in keeping with a show that name-checks Hegel, Kant, Heidegger, and especially the poet and essayist Susan Stewart (a fictional version of whom is featured in "The Lily's Revenge,'' portrayed by Adeola Role).
The idealized vision of marriage that animates Lily is subjected to a forceful reality check in the third act. Wedded bliss proves not entirely blissful in a dream ballet by Ara Glenn-Johanson, superbly performed by Marisa Fratto, as Bride Love, and Samson Kohanski, as Groom Love. On a catwalk above the duo, Lily slows to near immobility, as if demoralized by this spectacle of the prosaic.
It doesn't last long. Lily doesn't lose heart, and doesn't allow dreary reality to maintain its dominion, either. This flower just might be the last romantic.