UglyRhino Presents: “Okay” by Taylor Mac

UglyRhino Presents: "Okay" by Taylor Mac @ Central Arts
UglyRhino Presents: “Okay” by Taylor Mac @ Central Arts

What It Is

If you set out to the multi-purpose Central Arts space in Bushwick, Brooklyn, you may find yourself transported to a suburban prom circa 2003 for the duration of your visit, before and after the production of Taylor Mac’s “Okay”, now playing through May 28th, by UglyRhino Productions. The arena stage is ringed by seating, a DJ booth pumping early-Aughts beats all night, and a bar with beer, wine, and cocktails — including a spiked punch.

The intimate arrangement brings the audience inside a high school bathroom, where all the action swirls around one girl’s stall as she deals with the oncoming birth of her baby at prom. Originally conceived and performed by Mac as a solo piece, UglyRhino has created an expanded vision of the world with tight direction, impressive design, and a solid ensemble of performers.

It’s a social affair, so consider arriving early for a drink, or staying after — you might need one.

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Why It’s Good

UglyRhino regularly creates immersive theatre experiences with a party focus — as evidenced by their ongoing TinyRhino “theatrical drinking game” series — and continues here with “Okay”. We at Theater Is Good especially appreciate the communal aspect of theater-going, and UglyRhino’s commitment to making the event a party is a plus right out of the gate. When it lays the foundation for a compelling theatrical experience — that’s when it’s really great, and “Okay” certainly pulls it off.

The Central Arts space lends itself to a “high school gym” vibe in a way traditional theater spaces won’t, but otherwise is mostly a blank canvas. Before even arriving at the bedecked gym, decorated on the periphery in classic prom style, you can hear the distant bump of period pop warning you of the time warp. Valentine Monfeuga’s sound design throughout the night is on point, helping to establish the world of the play both with song choice, and subtle theatrical effects that complement the staging beautifully. And where the sounds helps create the world, Isabella Byrd’s lighting design serves to destroy and shift it during brief abstract interludes.

The set itself — the bathroom of action within the immersive prom world — is simply but carefully designed. Three toilets, so arranged, stall walls removed, form the entire world. But the effect is powerful — we’re at once put inside the bathroom with our ensemble, and also given a panoptic peek into any scenelet we please.

Once the play starts, the performers comfortably navigate the mostly-imagined space and unfold a series of moments in Stephanie’s (Eli Pauley) orbit, as she remains in the central stall of the bathroom. Pauley holds down the show, variously moving us with her reactions and occasional outbursts. She endures the poignant obliviousness of her best friend Jordan (Vanessa Bretas), a coked out duo and their drunk lost puppy, and the gamut of young gay male dalliance. And on every level, we feel the concussive Millennial panic of entering the world right when everyone was coming to terms with what post-9/11 might mean. 

The actors have risen to the monologue challenge in “Okay”, not only to deliver long-winded rants or stories without losing the thread, but also remaining constantly present as companions or eavesdroppers. This was no more evident than during a captivating mile-a-minute diatribe by the coked-out Trish (Manini Gupta), perfectly complemented by the subtle bugging-out of her bestie Trinity (Lindsay Rico), performing her own parallel silent monologue.

Taylor Mac clearly understands both the time he’s writing about, and a contemporary style that juggles laughter and sadness to profound effect. The tragic clown character of Josh, masterfully portrayed by Will Dagger, pulls at heartstrings and evokes laughter in too quick succession to process what’s really happening in your head.

Post-show, it felt perfectly natural to grab another drink, chat with the artists, and maybe make friends with the person sitting next to you. You never know what might happen.

 

Nothing’s Perfect

It’s best to really appreciate the pre-show and post-show conviviality as part of the performance, because unfortunately the play itself isn’t particularly long. Don’t get me wrong — a play that knows when to end is a marvelous thing, and so often we’re left with self-important dramas or serious ideas or fading humor that have totally overstayed their welcome. But though the trend for hour-and-a-half straight shots of theater is welcome, give us much less and we might still want more.

The length is an artifact of its original conception as a solo piece, or a one-act in dialogue with Mac’s other Dilating works — and to UglyRhino’s credit, it’s probably the only distracting holdover in adaptation. Between the solid design, Sharron’s direction, and the ensemble’s nuanced endurance, you could never guess it was written to be staged any other way.

But there’s something particularly mosaic about the structure, of conjuring characters and moments in juxtaposition without necessarily following up, that may be more effective when watching a single performer experience the journey. Watching “Okay”, I met and became invested in these interwoven lives that Mac and the production had created. Perhaps my empathy was too distracted to resolve the through-line with the time allotted. It’s not that I needed it tidier in the end, I just wanted more — which is also to say that I trusted them to give it to me. 

Technically the production showed only momentary cracks overall. For example, director Danny Sharron’s clear attention to accommodating the arena seating was certainly more noticeable than any brief periods I had no good view. (I also imagine arena staging is especially tricky for performers in a non-traditional space perched on toilets in 4-inch heels and gowns.)

While it was well-established early on that we were, in fact, in a bathroom, with all the graphic depictions that may occur, there was a long moment of great potential later on that felt like it pulled its punches. We see straight to the core of many characters through their more biological encounters in this bathroom, but I couldn’t shake the sense that there was still some hiding happening.

All that said: Even if this wasn’t totally you in high school in 2003, “Okay” conjures a party vibe, great performances, and potent storytelling that is well worth the trek to the transformed Central Arts space in Brooklyn.

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