Theater archives

Packing the Flag


Trapped in an abusive relationship, Tim Miller’s clearing out. A suitcase thrown onstage starts his new solo performance, and the evening contains a lot of frenzied unpacking and repacking of precious objects. It isn’t easy to decide what to take with you in a panic state, and the high, tremulous jabber in which Miller speaks most of his inner emotional unpacking is more than an affectation. This may be the most fraught piece he’s ever made; it’s certainly the jumpiest performance I’ve ever seen him give. He stumbles over words, constantly correcting himself, shifting from one position or one light cue to the next with a spasmodic jerk. “I’m not angry,” he says at one point, “but I am a bit peeved.” Under the line, as under many others in the piece, you can hear something closer to desperation than anger, a last-ditch effort to stave off an ultimate despair.

Like most of Miller’s onstage metaphors, the suitcase has an offstage reality. Same-sex marriage not yet being legal in California, where Miller resides, his partner of 10 years, an Australian named Alastair, must leave the country when his current work visa expires. And Miller means to go with him: The abusive relationship he’s trapped in isn’t the affectionate one at home. The expiration date—October 4—is alarmingly close, and though the objects in Miller’s onstage valise are all symbolic, he makes sure that the real suitcases waiting for him offstage are never far from the audience’s mind. When he talks about getting married on the Canadian side of the Rainbow Bridge, or shopping for a flat in London’s Henrietta Street, he’s not funning.

The versions of Miller’s daily life that he embedded in his pieces used to have a stylized playfulness: little golden anecdotes of living and loving. Now the golden haze has vanished; here, even his stories about being a 10-year-old in Southern California, growing up on original cast and soundtrack albums as he faces the first glimmerings of his sexual preference, are shot through with terror. The era of Oliver! and Man of La Mancha was also the era of Vietnam; for Miller to identify with the impossible dream and the runaway little boy who wants some more was a way of not identifying with the anonymous shapes in the body bags on the nightly TV news. The National Geographic, source of empathy with third-world natives, also provides, laid in as the map of the month, a handy escape route up the West Coast to Canada.

And suddenly, for any sensitive person of Miller’s generation, what was true at 10 is true at 40. America, the land of the free, the country that invented musical comedy in order to give 10-year-old Tim images of racial prejudice overcome (South Pacific), of two men living happily together in an elegant library (My Fair Lady), of outcasts overcoming all odds to get their turn in the spotlight (Gypsy, Funny Girl), and even of its own founding fathers as fallible, lusty, and hypocritical (1776)—that America has disappeared. In its place is the other America, corporate bully and world policeman gone psycho, trampling indiscriminately on human rights, despoiling the environment, wasting its resources in a self-destructive war, and hating gays, foreigners, and the poor. This is the America that has Tim Miller trapped in an abusive relationship. And he’s sick of it, unleashing a litany, repeated twice, of all the things America’s done wrong in the last 250 years.

And like Oliver, Tim’s running away, ready to dream again his 10-year-old dream of that happy community of boy pickpockets, trained in manual dexterity by an old man of indeterminate sexuality, and presided over by a bawdy but motherly Nancy and a dashing Artful Dodger. He’s ready for the Rainbow Bridge. “Soon it will be our wedding day,” he says devastatingly, “but not in America. We will have to find a free country.” Only, as he’s learned from Fiddler on the Roof, it isn’t so easy to marry the boy your father doesn’t approve of and travel far from the home you love. There’s one item that he can’t decide whether or not to pack: an American flag. How perfect that, on the day he visits the Rainbow Bridge, U.S. and Canadian police forces are staging their annual tug of war. In Miller’s mind, he becomes the rope, and since the well-trained, healthy Royal Mounteds, for whom this is a serious matter, invariably win, he sees himself being pulled over to the Canadian side, with joy but not without a lot of regrets, and hopes, and wishful thinking about an America that once was and could be again.

Does he take the flag with him? I’ll leave you to find that out for yourselves, along with what he does, when it’s finally his turn, in the next to closing spot. Let’s just say that those who know Gypsy, and are expecting both a climactic striptease and a tormented, fragmented reprise of all the show’s earlier hit tunes, won’t be disappointed. His resourcefulness, his inventive range, his gift for reading the larger meanings in everyday objects, are among the many reasons we need to keep Tim Miller in this country. But to do that, we need to keep this country, which is daily slipping further and further away, into the hands of people whose only idea of how to run it is ruination. Don’t expect them to reinvent musical comedy, or performance art, for that matter. In fact, if you let them win, expect me to be joining Tim and his Alastair on Henrietta Street. He’s not the only one who always wanted to live in a library designed by Cecil Beaton.