It’s a measure of how busy and scattered I am that this post didn’t go up on Tuesday or even late Monday evening, when the afterglow of Everett Quinton’s production of Charles Ludlam’s The Conquest of the Universe, or When Queens Collide, was still pulsating from my skull like the bio-luminescence of a deep sea fish monster. What Quinton has achieved can be accounted all the greater due to the heavy freight of expectations. They necessarily ran HIGH. This is the 50th anniversary of the play, Ludlam’s first as his own actor-manager. Playwright, play, and director are all legendary. If Quinton had let us down, we’d be like “C’est la vie. What are ya gonna do?” But he DIDN’T. So I must tell you this — if you are a certain kind of person (and that includes most of the people I know) your life will be incomplete if you don’t go. This is a vital piece of your theatrical education. But it ain’t medicine! It’s one of the most enjoyable evenings of theatre you’re ever likely to have — and THAT is the lesson to be drawn. Actors giving 150%. Playwright and director taking the leashes off their imaginations and letting them run amok like the Id-monster in Forbidden Planet. Nothing is hedged. Nothing is done by half measure. All is risked…FOR YOU.
Those most familiar with Ludlam’s best known, most oft-produced works (Camille, Bluebeard, The Mystery of Irma Vep) will find themselves much illuminated by the transitional nature of this early play, written when Ludlam still had both feet in John Vaccaro’s original Playhouse of the Ridiculous. His penchant for collage, quotation and classicism are all recognizably there, although with less focus than in his later works. This is comedy by buckshot, not by Derringer.
The show is a satirical space opera based on Tamberlaine: the rise and fall of a conqueror who gains and loses the solar system. Lost in Space had begun airing two years earlier; and Star Trek the year before. It’s impossible to imagine these weren’t an influence.
Perhaps the toughest thing for younger audiences to adjust to is the sexual freedom. This may sound like I have it backwards chronologically, but I really don’t. It was written at a time when sexual liberation in art, culture and society was exploding. There’s a good bit of Living Theatre vibration, if not outright influence, in the show. When I moved to NYC in the late ’80s, though AIDS had already taken a catastrophic toll (most relevantly on Ludlam himself), there was still a quality of sexual fearlessness abroad in the land among artists 10 or 20 years older than me. In subsequent decades I watched the climate get chillier and chillier and chiller. My own generation is definitely more uptight than the one that came before. And, anecdotally, it seems the generation behind mine is even MORE conservative and prudish. Obviously people are more accepting of a broader range of sexual identities and preferences now. But not FREE in the sixties and seventies sense of “anything goes”. In fact we’re in a major reaction to that attitude at this very historical moment. So just know that. It’s the play’s most dated aspect, a sign more of the closing of the audience’s mind than of the artists’, which is quite the opposite of the way it has traditionally worked. Rapes, orgies, group sex, oral sex, gay sex, masturbation and so forth are comically depicted here. Frankly it made me nostalgic — for this kind of theatre, at any rate. And even this aspect ties in with Ludlam’s classicism: I unavoidably thought of the ancient Greeks and Romans during a lot of these shenanigans.
And what a game cast! Much more than some of Ludlam’s works, this is an ensemble piece, with a large ensemble, so although Quinton himself is hilarious and shines, there is ample opportunity for everyone to do that. Grant Neale especially knocked my socks off. A visual ringer for Roman Polanski with a physiognomical modicum of Danny Kaye, he peppers his performance with references to Popeye, the Three Stooges, Ed Grimley, and probably a hundred things I’ve forgotten because I was enjoying myself too much to take notes. I must also give shout-outs to my mates Eugene the Poogene, and Shane Baker, and costume designer Ramona Ponce, whose work was a visual feast. But really, everyone involved — forgive me — is stellar.
I can’t give enough props to Quinton here, though. He was famously Ludlam’s apprentice and heir apparent. But ya know what? That was THIRTY years ago. He has amassed a crazy amount of experience at this point, both as an actor and a director. Schooled in the Ridiculous at a formative age, he’s built on that high-class kindergarten education with a career’s worth of subsequent wisdom. The main measure of that? Quinton joined the Ridiculous many years AFTER the original production of this play. The endlessly inventive direction of this production is all Everett’s. And, man, does he seem to be having a good time. Drag artists, clowns, burlesque performers, classical actors, all: go study at the foot of the master. It’s at La MaMa through November 19.