The Walk Across America for Mother Earth
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 16, 2011
The Walk Across America for Mother Earth actually happened, back in 1992: it was a nine-month-long demonstration, in which a band of protesters marched from New York City to a nuclear test site in Nevada that had once belonged to the Shoshone tribe. The timing of the march—500 years after Columbus's "discovery" of America—was deliberate, for in addition to opposing nuclear testing, the protest was intended to call attention to a long history of genocide against Native Americans.
This is the backdrop for The Walk Across America for Mother Earth, the latest theatre piece by Taylor Mac, here created in collaboration with the venerable troupe The Talking Band. Frequent Mac collaborators like performers James Tigger! Ferguson and Daphne Gaines and costume designer Machine Dazzle are involved with this show, along with Talking Band stalwarts Paul Zimet (director), Ellen Maddow (composer and performer), and Tina Shepard, Steven Rattazzi, and Will Badgett (performers). It all unfolds in the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa E.T.C., a large open space where Anna Kiraly's sprawling set, which is anchored by a highway painted on the stage floor and a set of moveable panels that remind us of street signs and billboards, welcomes us before the show begins.
The play depicts the walk, which Taylor Mac actually participated in; our view into it is from his then-youthful perspective (he was 18 at the time), full of anticipation and excitement and eagerness at first, then gradually dissipating into cynicism and hopelessness as the marchers inevitably let their own personal concerns, baggage, and squabbles yank them away from the idealistic notions that originally motivated them. Mac plays Kelly, a naive young man presumably not unlike himself at the time; in this guise we see his faith in humanity jolted by corruption, self-interest, and economics. The story is consequently enormously pertinent. Unlike every other Taylor Mac show I've ever seen, it is also sadly lacking in optimism.
Review of the script indicates a more ambitious schema for the proceedings than I recognized. All of the play's characters are supposed to correspond to archetypes from commedia dell'arte; each, further, has a specific color associated with them, along with a specific "activist prop" and a specific kind of eye makeup (the characters are either tunnel-visioned, cross-eyed, or have heavy eyelids). I have to admit that while Dazzle's costumes are a colorful hodgepodge of styles and patterns and Darrell Thorne's makeup is somewhere in between Kabuki and clown, I didn't make any of these connections. Would the play have felt different to me if I had?
Let me talk about the characters, who are all brought to vivid life by the skilled cast. Rattazzi plays King Arthur, the ostensible leader of the protest, a fellow who is shown to be more about surface and showmanship than anything else. Greeter is described as a "radical fairy"; he's portrayed by Tigger! and is lively and exuberant and, inevitably, strips down to a g-string before the show is over. Maddow plays Flower, King Arthur's overbearing hippie girlfriend. Shepard plays Marsha, a radical lesbian who is ill with cancer and is (a) not going to let that stop her from getting to the test site and (b) not above using her sickness to manipulate others so that she gets her way. Badgett plays Nick, coming off as a likable if slightly scary bipolar homeless guy. Others on the march include Jimica, a young man so obsessed by Native American culture that he has a tattoo of an Indian chief on his always-bared chest (played here by a woman, Nikki Zialcita, who also doubles as Flower's dog); Rainbow Carl, a sort of "professional" protester from Belgium, played by Jack Wetherall; and Angie (Gaines), who is Kelly's pal and Marsha's girlfriend, a young woman trying to find herself in activism and, perhaps, losing herself instead.
The proceedings include many songs, a little bit of audience participation, an extended tornado/dance sequence, and a lot of coarse humor (for example, the dog is depicted as being in permanent sexual arousal—a nod to commedia, perhaps, but one that never quite registered with me). It's fun but not often funny; raucous and rousing but not as inspiring or moving as previous works by these artists have been.
Fans of Taylor Mac the performer need to know that there's nowhere near enough of him in this show: the only time he sings a solo, for example, comes during intermission, as part of a very delightful "Talent/No Talent Show," when he regales us with "King of Filigree," a song cut from the show. I know I missed seeing more of that kind of thing.