Archive for the Indie Theatre Category

Celebrating 50 Years of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2017 by travsd

Nick Viselli and Everett Quinton During Our Recent Interview at the Tick Tock Diner

This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Our most avid readers know this is a subject near and dear to my heart. I have blogged previously about the company’s founder Charles Ludlam; about frequent Ridiculous collaborator Ethyl Eichelberger; about the company that Ludlam’s broke with, John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous; about performance artist Penny Arcade, who got her start in Ridiculous productions; and about Charles Busch, who had an early affiliation with the company. The Ridiculous cast a long shadow; major artists who acknowledge the company’s influence include Bette Midler (who is also not incidentally a vocal fan of my book No Applause); John Waters, and his core cast members, such as Mink Stole; as well as Jennifer Miller’s Circus Amok; and Dick Zigun of Coney Island USA.

And yes, your humble correspondent. Most of my plays owe something to Ludlam and the Ridiculous and I usually give a shout-out where its due. (I confess I even got involved with a woman once, seduced largely by her former ties to the legendary company). It was the thrill of a lifetime when Everett Quinton, Ludlam’s successor as company artistic director and long time company member, appeared in my play Horse Play, or The Fickle Mistress at La Mama two years ago. Everett was generous enough to join me recently, along with Nick Viselli of Theater Breaking Through Barriers, to discuss their 50th anniversary celebrations and revival of Ludlam’s last play The Artificial Jungle for Chelsea Now. Read my article here.

We’ll likely be blogging lots more about this auspicious occasion, so stay tuned!

John Vaccaro and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous

Posted in Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2017 by travsd

I attended an amazing edition of LaMama’s Coffeehouse Chronicles yesterday, devoted to the memory of John Vaccaro, founder of the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, who passed away last August. For someone whose cultural reach was so great (and who looms so large in my own imagination), Vaccaro’s footprint in the internet age is shockingly small. He doesn’t even have a proper Wikipedia entry. I won’t bother asking why, I’ll just try to contribute to redressing the omission. After all, the public at large is ignorant of art anyway…let alone theatre…let alone non-commercial theare…let alone the Absurd…let alone the Ridiculous…let alone the schism within the Ridiculous. But that stuff all matters a great deal to me. Just as with old time vaudeville, I get vexed, intrigued, tantalized, obsessed by LEGENDS. You HEAR about something, you get piecemeal testimony, but the whole story ain’t there. Worse, it’s in the past. You’ll never get the full story. You’ll never live it. And it sounds like it was so amazing. It’s maddening.

So where? How? Well, you end up working backwards a lot of the time. In my formative years and beyond, I’d collect and read lots of old paperbacks about underground film and theatre in the sixties. Sometimes books of published plays, or reviews, or other sorts of accounts. Plays by people like Ronald Tavel, Taylor Mead, Ron Rice, Frank O’Hara, etc etc. You’d hear accounts by people like John Waters and his Dreamlanders. You certainly learn a bit from the much better documented splinter movement led by Charles Ludlam. I watched a great documentary about The Cockettes, a San Francisco group who claimed to be influenced by Vaccaro.

But now, for your sake, let’s work chronologically. As with so much that happened in the late 20th century, it all starts with Warhol. Warhol wasn’t just a painter, but a catalyst, almost a cult leader, with a large community of people around him: a the gaggle of artists, performers, models, and hangers-on called The Factory. In 1963 Warhol began to branch out into films. Ronald Tavel wrote some of them. In 1965, Tavel had a screenplay called Shower that had been rejected by Warhol’s then-reigning star Edie Sedgwick. He decided that it and some of his other writings might work onstage as plays. So he approached Vaccaro, a friend of a friend, who’d performed his own poetry in beatnik coffeehouses, and who’d acted in some Jack Smith films, and in some productions of the New York Poets Theatre. At the time, Vaccaro had never directed and was no longer even acting; he was simply working in a bookstore. But after he read the script, he agreed to do it.

There seems to be disagreement (both in the written record and in direct testimony) whether it was Vaccaro, Tavel or Jack Smith (who initially was in charge of costumes for the first production) who named the movement “Ridiculous”. Vaccaro’s group “The Playhouse of the Ridiculous” was the original one. In 1967, company member Charles Ludlam had a blow-out with Vaccaro and went off to found his own “Ridiculous Theatrical Company” which was to become better known in time, essentially co-opting the name and the movement. But there were clear differences between the two splinter groups. While both were largely connected to queer culture and drag, Ludlam’s version (centered almost entirely on his own original plays) privileged camp, comedy, and classical formalism. The archetypal Ludlam work was his version of Camille. The Vaccaro version was much more anarchistic and grotesque, much more avant-garde in the ’60s senseLudlam was a trained professional, as were many or most of his company members. Vaccaro took in street urchins, runaways, hustlers and drug addicts and then browbeat them into giving them performances he wanted.

Vaccaro rehearsed his plays in his Great Jones Street loft. He first presented his productions in art galleries, only later transferring to actual theatres. People from the Warhol constellation like Mario Montez, Ondine, and Jackie Curtis were in the productions, as were people who went off with Ludlam, like Lola Pashalinski, Black-Eyed Susan and John Brockmeyer. And it was with the Playhouse of the Ridiculous where the teenager who became Penny Arcade got her start in 1967.

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Full house! (photo by Travis Chamberlain) 

Penny organized yesterday’s tribute, and an amazing experience it was, packed to the rafters with old hippies, queers and freaks, and a few rubberneckers like me who came hoping some of their magic would rub off on us. Among the most memorable takeaways for me was old videotape of actual productions — so mind-blowing, documentary footage of sixties rock and roll and dance and performance in its natural habitat. I couldn’t help thinking, “This is as close as I’m ever gonna get.” Penny was a wonderful moderator, sharing her own memories as well as Vaccaro’s biographical history (he grew up in his parents’ grocery store in Steubenville, Ohio, was obsessed with sports, didn’t discover art until college, served in the navy, and spent two years in a mental asylum). Penny never shies away from anything difficult, and so a recurring theme of the afternoon’s program was Vacarro’s reportedly difficult and cruel personality as a director. The main theme of the afternoon was respect and love for his legacy, while acknowledging that he could also be an S.O.B.

Vintage Ruby

Other presenters included Ruby (Ruby Lynn Reyner) who appeared in 40 Vaccaro productions and is the subject, with Robert Feinberg of the 2008 HBO documentary Finishing Heaven), Lola Pashalinsky who spoke about the “Great Upheaval” which occurred during the productions of Conquest of the Universe a.k.a When Queens Collide; Crystal Field of Theater for the New City (via pre-recorded video); playwright Ken Bernard, whose plays for the company included The Moke Eater, The Magic Show Dr. Mag-ico, The 60 Minute Queer Show and Fin du CirqueChris Rael of Church of Betty; and LaMama’s own Nicky Paraiso. 

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Panel (L-R): Penny Arcade, Ruby, Don Arrington, Agosto Machade. Photo by Travis Chamberlain

Sadly missing from the line-up was playwright and teacher Bill Hoffman, who’d passed away himself just a couple of weeks ago and was scheduled to participate. (I’d seen and reviewed Theatre Askew’s production of Hoffman’s Cornbury a few years ago, and seen Hoffman himself in conversation with critic Randy Gener at a live taping of a tv show up at Lehman College). NY Times obit on Hoffman is here.

Another amazing artifact was a later clip (showing the plain curatorial hand of Penny Arcade) from a few years ago in which Vaccaro was interviewed by theatre historian/ film-maker Joe E. Jeffreys about the fact that the historic building containing his loft was going to be razed to make room for a high-rise. The building had previously been home to theatres called the Alhambra and the Majestic, not to mention all those historic rehearsals for Vaccaro’s productions. Vaccaro appeared oddly unsentimental about the destruction, merely glad that the developers were giving him a sweet deal on rent in the ugly new building.

Will the past be buried? Paved over? Plowed under? Not while I have something to say! I walked away from the program re-energized, re-committed, inspired. It ain’t over yet! If you missed it, here’s the NY Times obit on Vaccaro. Let’s spread the fame of this work a little farther.

“Dead End” at the Axis Company

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2017 by travsd

Last night, we got to check out Axis Company’s exciting revival of Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End. I’d gotten to see a portion in rehearsal for my feature about the show in Chelsea NowIt whetted my appetite for more.

This was the twelfth Axis show I’ve either seen or written about over the past 17 years, the others being: Frankenstein, Woyzeck, the American premiere of Sarah Kane’s Crave (which featured Debbie Harry!), Hospital, Seven in One Blow, A Glance at New YorkEdgar Oliver’s East 10th Street: Self-Portrait with Empty Housetrinity 5:29, Down There and Evening 1910. And there are several others of their’s I’ve kicked myself for missing, including more than one show about Houdini. The company has come to be one of those in NYC whose work I know the best. I never set out to make that happen, and sometimes, a few years pass between my visits. But artistic director’s Randy Sharp’s combination of passions (an apparent obsession with oddball, often murderous, American history mixed with an aesthetic of avant-garde modernism and a love of technology) is close enough to mine, though parallel, to constantly intrigue me.

Dead End is a wonderful example of how she works. The original play was the height of realism for its time, considered documentary-like, and was produced by the Group Theatre, the original American cult of Stanislawski’s Method. While it possesses some antiquated elements like stock characters and situations, hangovers and conventions from the melodrama era which folks in the 30s either didn’t see or didn’t mind since they were so close to it, Dead End was originally laid out to be very “here and now”, anchored to its own time (the 1930s) and a very particular place (the slums of the East Side of Manhattan).

Sharp’s instinct in the current production is to abstract and universalize the setting. Probably drab and grey to begin with when they originally mounted it on Broadway, Sharp and her designers have dialed the entire color scheme all the way up to black: every set piece, costume, and prop (including things like newspapers, dollar bills and a shine box). The dock pilings which are a major element of the setting (a gang of poor kids hangs out there, jumping off it occasionally to swim in the polluted East River) is represented by three highly stylized (simplified) black cylinder shapes. This hellish scenography transplants the story to some more timeless place that adds existential juice to the play’s title: Dead End as No Exit, or “the neighborhood” as The Village in The Prisoner. The kids in the gang wear hood-like head pieces which resemble early aviation helmets, or perhaps something a medieval monk or nun might wear.  These kids (Emily Kratter, Jon McCormick, Regina Betancourt, and Lynn  Mancinelli) are at once the element that anchors us the most to the purported time and place (the slang, the accents), but they are also formalized into a chorus, often chanting lines in unison, or underscoring the action with percussive sounds, literally “banging a can”. The resetting of the production into limbo makes certain lines pop as being as much “now” as “then”. A character’s monologue about the neighborhood being disrupted when a fancy high rise was recently put up in their midst could have been written yesterday.

Disruption seems to be the leitmotif overall: The entire cast remains onstage for the duration, edgily roiling and twitching with discontent and agida. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go — even for those who’ve left, like the gangster Babyface Martin (a terrifying Brian Barnhart) and the cripple Gimpty, who studied six years to be an architect (George Demas). Both have returned to the birthplace of their misery as though they’d been tethered there with bungee chords. Tommy, the leader of the gang (McCormick), is wanted for a crime, but insists on hanging around the neighborhood, unable or unwilling to flee even if it means freedom. Trapped like animals in a cage, the characters devour each other, squabble, demean, and cut each other up (both literally and figuratively). Some have visions and express hope, but there’s no agit-prop here, no magic recipe to make it all go away. It’s what makes the play modern, easily adaptable to Sharp’s aesthetic, and relatable to our own experience.

“Life sucks and then you die”? Something like that. But somehow people do go on, and, as Camus might say, I guess that’s the point. And the SHOW doesn’t suck! You should see it. It’s up through May 20: here’s the Axis web site for more info and tix. 

 

Through a Dandy, Darkly

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Clown, Contemporary Variety, Drag and/or LGBT, Indie Theatre, ME, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2017 by travsd

Our old friend (fiend?) Dandy Darkly is about to launch two exciting new projects: his book of monologue-stories Dandy Darkly’s Six Hundred and Sixty-Six Tales of Sex and Death, Volume One, and a tour of his new show Dandy Darkly’s Myth Mouth. Read all about Dandy and his new projects in my new article in the current edition of Chelsea Now. 

And for a little snippet of Dandy in action, watch our 2013 Vaudephone here. 

When is a Dead End Not a Dead End?

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , , , on April 27, 2017 by travsd

Riddle me this: when is a Dead End not a Dead End? Answer: when it’s Sidney Kingsley’s seminal 1935 play, being given an invigorating new revival by the Axis Company. I wrote about the original phenomenon of the play and its 25 year aftermath in this piece about the Bowery Boys and Dead End Kids.  My feature about the new production at Axis is here at Chelsea Now. 

Tonight! My Vaudeville Salute to World War One

Posted in AMERICANA, Contemporary Variety, Indie Theatre, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , , on April 25, 2017 by travsd

April 2017 is the 100th anniversary of America’s involvement in the First World War. Tonight, April 25 at the Metropolitan Playhouse’s 25th Anniversary Gala  I’m organizing and hosting a vaudeville tribute to the event as the entertainment. We have Peter Daniel Straus and Chris Rozzi as Weber and Fields! Gay Marshall singing Parisian songs of the era! The one and only Lorinne Lampert doing George M. Cohan material! The Two and Only Jonathan M. Smith doing English music hall! A presentation of Nazimova’s famous starring vehicle War Brides directed by Ivana Cullinan and starring Alyssa Simon, Victoria Miller, Morgan Zipf-Meister, and Amy Overman Plowman! and Charlie Chaplin’s The Bond, accompanied by Ben Model! And more! Hosted and interpreted by yours truly Trav SD! It’s going to be a memorable evening — In fact, I remember it already! Tickets, reservations and information all here. 

The Wild Party’s Over (But Not Really, You Have One More Chance)

Posted in Clown, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2017 by travsd

We have been following the progress of Jennifer Harder’s The Wild Party’s Over with great avidity ever since she won the well-deserved First of May Award from the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, which gives small grants to deserving variety artists to develop projects. She chose to adapt Joseph Moncure March’s book-length Jazz Age poem The Wild Party, an admirably daunting task, as it has been adapted for the stage before. We were privileged to be at an early reading she and her artistic partner Charley Layton gave at the Way Station, and to sit in on an early brainstorming session for the project. The pull of the material on Harder is not surprising; her former stage character Bathtub Jen evoked similar Jazz Age echoes of illicit, criminal life choices, of life on the lam.

The Wild Party is simultaneously a celebration of bohemian culture and a tragedy. Only the timid would take it as a cautionary tale. I’d much rather experience these events and LIVE… than last until I’m 95 without experiencing any such wild parties. (I was going to add that I might feel differently if I ever found myself at a party that ended up with a corpse on the floor, but then I remembered that I HAVE been to one that ended up with a corpse on the floor and I STILL find myself longing to be at such parties — just not that particular one.) Harder’s adaptation is wonderfully successful at evoking that feeling of nocturnal seduction as embodied by the Siren call of music. The cast of four (Harder, Layton, Natti Vogel and Stephen Heskett) are not just an acting ensemble but a rock band, working Blondie and Velvet Underground covers into the narrative in place of the Hot Jazz which would have been the original inspiration. Harder, as always, sings and plays trumpet; Vogel sings and plays piano; Layton mans accordion and guitar; and Heskett, to my surprise and delight played percussion and drums in the solid and basic manner of Mo Tucker. 

Heskett surprised in any number of ways. His normal stage presence is as a decent, nice All American fellow; here he is the villain of the piece, a rapey, woman-hating creep in clown make-up, part Joker, part Juggalo. The other three are manifestations of their normal stage characters in the variety world; Vogel doubles as narrator. There is more than a little Brechtianism in the presentation. It’s a wonderful showcase for the talents of all, and at just under an hour, completely lean and mean, and lacking in dead spots. Know that it’s a workshop, a work-in-progress, but my main takeaway is that it has lots of potential as a bookable, tour-worthy thing, with its compact troupe, minimal sets, and loads and loads of vivacity flying off the performers.

I was so jazzed by the show I was inspired to interview folks afterward…only to discover afterwards that the ubuiquitous Adam McGovern had already done so, and perfectly too, so I herewith direct the curious to his blogpiece here at HiLow. 

The Wild Party’s Over but not really — there’s one more performance on at the Tank April 20. I highly recommend it! And if you do attend, know that the fifth voice in the production, including the annoying neighbor is the show’s director Chris Rozzi. Chris is currently playing the Joe Weber part in my Weber and Fields revival project, which you can check out in the Metropolitan Playhouse’s gala on April 25. Don’t miss that either! 

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