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Taylor Mac leads long, lyrical, lascivious pop music history

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Taylor Mac gets deep into the audience in his performance art extravaganza at the Curran. (Courtesy Little Fang Photo)
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Early on in the first of four chronological “chapters” of playwright-performer Taylor Mac’s “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” a naked woman (one of Mac’s hordes of outrageously costumed minions) raced gleefully up and down the aisles of the Curran theater, an audience member, as ordered by Mac, in pursuit.

If this sort of thing doesn’t put you on notice that you’re in for an insane six hours, I don’t know what would.

Mac workshopped a shorter version of this first chapter, encompassing 1776 to 1836, at the Curran last year.

The other three equally long chapters (ending in the present) are, like this one, performed only once each in San Francisco, with one condensed version of the 24-hour opus staged at Stanford.

Each chapter covers a decade an hour in period-precise song (arrangements by music director Matt Ray, with nary a word changed, except for pronouns) and X-rated-funny and imaginative commentary.

Co-directed by Mac and Niegel Smith, the entire work is a look at American history from the perspective of an iconoclastic gay performance artist with deeply felt social convictions, a beautiful and expansive singing voice, a great comic sensibility and the writing and audience-manipulation skills to pull it all off.

The decades roll by, each one marked by an onstage costume change (costume designer: Machine Dazzle).

Accompanied by an onstage orchestra and backup singers, Mac connects the songs (Chapter I included a haunting rendition of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” a gorgeous “Shenandoah” and a dynamite rock version of the murder ballad “The Banks of the Ohio”) by telling hilarious, carefully crafted stories.

The longest interwoven story in Chapter I, about a pair of missionaries who adopt an Indian child, is a purposeful subversion of what Mac labels the “heteronormative narrative.”

Chapter I follows several themes from the post-Revolutionary period that still resonate today: the plight of women, Native Americans and the Other (read: the LGBTQ community).

During the intermission-less show, you take breaks whenever.

Chapter I involved singalongs; commands to stand up, sit down, scream, eat things, smell things, move around and interact with neighbors in various and borderline invasive ways. For one entire hour we were blindfolded.

Mac’s charisma and connection to the audience are masterful, and so are his acting chops. He may be only a quasi-reliable narrator, but this is the most entertaining and perhaps the most soulful American history lesson you’ll ever have.

REVIEW

Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music
Presented by Curran and Stanford Live with Magic Theatre and Pomegranate Arts
Where: Curran, 445 Geary St,, S.F.
When: 5 p.m. Sept. 22; 2 p.m. Sept. 17 and Sept. 24
Tickets: $49 to $285
Contact: www.sfcurran.com, http://live.stanford.edu/
Note: An abridged version is at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall.

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