At the Colony Theater Saturday night for the inaugural Out in the Tropics festival, Taylor Mac worked in a circle of white light with a pile of motley-fabulous costumes (ratty wigs, red crinoline, faux leopard muumuu), a gorgeous mask of glittery makeup and a ukulele. But by the time he had finished his two-hour show ``The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac,'' he had covered the expanse of human fear and longing, from theories of Armageddon and the war on terror to sex, birth, love and dandyism.
``I'm gonna change periodically cause I'm gonna channel Proteus. This is a high-brow play!'' Mac said at one point. It also is an astonishingly humane and startling work of theater that is its best argument for the power of the imagination.
The directors of FUNDarte and Tropical Wave Productions, who produced Out in the Tropics, aim to illuminate gay and lesbian artists and issues. But the festival's three shows demonstrated the potential and relevance of a vision outside the mainstream -- in Mac's case, a vision that cuts, with an ironic, sequin-encrusted wink, to the heart of life.
Mac's elaborate, glittering makeup turns his face into a kind of tragi-comic mask, and with his wild costumes and tall frame tottering in heels, he seemed like some absurd fever-dream icon. But he was also insistently personable, joking and teasing, insisting people move down front. His combination of strange and intimate is disarming: We don't know what to make of him, and so we have to take him for himself.
That acceptance is what Mac wants. Throughout his brilliantly witty (the more so for being partly improvised) and vivid monologue, he tackles our terror of the unexpected (whether of a potential terrorist attack or a fashion sense expressed in a skirt made of rubber gloves) and his -- anyone's -- longing for love and fear of being vulnerable.
Without warning, his songs veer from hilarious to poignant. In one number, he juxtaposes a disappointing lovemaking session with the birth of a friend's child, creating a palpable jolt as his loneliness collides with another's happiness. Still, he persists in being optimistic, so long as he, and we, stay open to possibilities. ``It's gonna be all right,'' he sings sweetly and steps from his pool of light and into the darkness where anything can happen.
Sara Felder's ``June Bride,'' the festival's final show on Sunday night, was not so surprising in performance or concept. Felder tells of her struggles to have a traditional Jewish wedding with her lover, battling social expectations, tradition and her uncertainties about reconciling being lesbian with being Jewish. Felder simultaneously mocks and plays up a familiarly self-deprecating humor (``God forbid we should have one day where we can just be happy''), and if the jokes sometimes feel a little predictable, they are mostly quite funny. Some are more unexpected -- a sequence in which Felder becomes one of the daughters in ``Fiddler on the Roof,'' arguing with her father about marrying a woman, is one of the best.
Felder deftly weaves in episodes that become not-always-subtle metaphors for her themes, juggling knives as a parallel for the dangerous topic of circumcision or struggling out of a straitjacket while balancing on a board and rolling tube as she contemplates her wedding ceremony. ``Coming out has been difficult for me,'' Felder says. ``Tell me if the metaphors are getting too subtle.''
Felder has been doing ``Bride'' for 15 years, and her performance often feels stiff, as if she's delivering lines. The deadpan delivery may be a stylistic choice, but the result often flattens out a startling story or its characters. And the humor can undercut stronger emotions. At the end, Felder urges the audience to shout ``Mazel tov!'' as she symbolically stomps the glass at her wedding, a triumphant moment that doesn't feel as happy as it should.