On Friday evening, 50 years ago to the day when the late Queen Elizabeth II opened the iconic Sydney Opera House in 1972, another queen and two dozen cohorts showed that the country has perhaps come some way after all, constitutional changes aside.
For one night only, the inimitable and arresting American actor, playwright, performance artist, director, singer-songwriter and tireless drag performer, Taylor Mac, entertained with a newly minted canon of queer-centric songs, presented together with a smorgasbord of queer performance artists and, unsurprisingly, tons of glitter and eye-watering, combustible, gaudy glam.
The rewardingly seductive Bark of Millions traverses 4 continuous hours and queerness is key – whether understanding or defining it or not, being flummoxed by it, or simply expressing it. It’s a personal choice and no one is held captive. The audience is given permission to come and go as they please. Many did so. Some for another round of drinks but others, perhaps satisfyingly enlightened, not to return.
Conceived during height of the Covid pandemic, 55 fabulous and broadly styled songs – one marking each year since the landmark Stonewall uprising – come together in what is billed and succeeds in spades as “a celebration of the power of individuality and human connection.” And seeing humanity first is paramount in the take-home message.
As lyricist, director and performer, Mac is the show’s resonating nucleus but the spotlight doesn’t fail to fall on longtime collaborator, composer and musical director Matt Ray either. The duo’s binding artistic strengths and deep friendship are plainly obvious.
Songs of sensitivity, wit and heart keep ringing out as Mac and Ray’s queer canon offer an abundance of entertainment and ideas to soak up. For that, a zesty band of eight musicians who partake in the festive feel – separated on both sides of the concert hall stage – create a rousing musical landscape guided by Ray’s winning handiwork on piano and keyboards.
As an equal – as everyone is among the ensemble – Mac is joined by a host of talent bringing no shame to audience individuals if the artists’ identities are unknown. I measured a lowly three on queer-performance-artist-awareness.
Yes, I was familiar with emotively voiced Australian cabaret artist and “gender transcendent diva” Mama Alto and British-Nigerian artist-extraordinaire Le Gateau Chocolat, who I first encountered as an indispensable part of director Tobias Kratzer’s 2019 production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser at Germany’s high-brow Bayreuth Festival no less.
And then there was Mac, who utterly blew a hungry-for-more audience away after the career-defining 24-Decade History of Popular Music at the Melbourne Festival in 2017 when 246 songs split over four nights in over 24 hours of showtime dazzled with a plethora of affecting theatre.
Whether on parade as brilliant singers or musicians, remaining artists Ari Folman-Cohen, Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks, Chris Giarmo, Dana Lyn, El Beh, Greg Glassman, Jack Fuller, Joel E. Mateo, Jules Skloot, Lisa “Paz” Parrott, Marika Hughes, Matt Ray, Sean Donovan, Steffanie Christi’an, Stephen Quinn, Thornetta Davis, Viva DeConcini, Wes Olivier make their presence felt lovingly, generously and mightily impressively.
Oh, and Machine Dazzle, whose fantastical camp and stereotype-eschewing creations provide visual stimulation and amusing flair, leaves an unforgettable impression.
A shaggy American football 69-er, a billowing lipstick red souffle-like gown and enormous owl-like headdress are a drop in the ocean of gobsmacking costume art. Of course! As the designer for 24-Decade History of Popular Music, I can raise my awareness level to four.
Mac describes Bark of Millions as a squished together opera-concert-song-cycle-musical-performance-art-piece-play. That just about sums it up. There’s really no narrative to cling to but each of the 55 songs are dedicated to a queer-attributed individual, justified or not, beginning with the genderless Egyptian deity Atum and claiming such known people as Oscar Wilde, Greta Garbo, Florence Nightingale and even The Greeks in an audacious late-in-the-show appearance. But most will be unknown to the novice.
For almost the first couple of hours, Mac evokes something of an intimate lounge setting – the first I’ve seen dotted with soft seats depicting the erogenous zones. But a sense that the artists’ main purpose are to perform amongst themselves with the audience merely a peripheral by-the-by seems anti-productive.
Perhaps it is the intention, since the next couple of hours sail by with a greater variety of staging and, with them, a salient and slow breaking down of order seemingly occurs that empowers the joy of queerness.
It also doesn’t matter that the lyrics aren’t always clear or digested in time but a playlist of 55 thought-provoking original songs could do with a bonus accompanying printed edition of the lyrics one day!
Bark of Millions cannot help but capture the senses and soul of its onlookers in its attempt to explore and wonder upon queerness. And one couldn’t wish for a better restart to face the world than a happy huggy ending following the final poignant number, You and Me. We should all be a little more queer for it.
Bark of Millions
Concert Hall – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Friday 20 October 2023 – 7.00pm
Images: Bark of Millions – photo by Daniel Boud (1. Ensemble | 2. Mama Alto | 3. Taylor Mac and Ensemble)
Review: Paul Selar