By Massimo Iacoboni
How to critique a playwright who, in so many ways, turned theatre upside down and inside out? During his career, which ended abruptly in 1987 due to complications from AIDS, Charles Ludlam employed the most drastic of playwriting techniques to amass a body of work that both dissected and deconstructed theatrical conventions, achieving something that, in his own words, would be “radically wrong”.
He “threw out the idea of professionalism and cultivated something much more extreme than amateurism.” At the start of his career he experimented with surrealist, brilliantly demented writing techniques: in Southern Fried Checkov he put a copy of the complete works of Checkov in a pan of hot fat and fried it. He wrote a play in Hungarian from a Hungarian menu. But most of all he employed collage, thumbing through books and picking phrases at random, or having a friend read lines from one act of a classical play while he would answer with lines from another act, interspersing them with things he heard on the radio or read in news headlines.
In CONQUEST OF THE UNIVERSE OR WHEN QUEENS COLLIDE, which he wrote in his early twenties, Ludlam turned Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine into a sci-fi parody of intergalactic conquest, in which various monarchs, including Magnavox, King of Mercury, but most notably Bajazeth, King of Mars, succumb to Tamburlaine’s frenzied quest for universal power.
It is comedy as broad as comedy gets, retelling (sort of) the story of Tamburlaine in a wildly over-the-top, nothing-is-sacred style. For much of his dialogue Ludlam borrows freely from Shakespeare’s plays, but also from “B” movies and TV commercials, alternating coarse pornographic jokes, plenty of toilet humor, comical reenactments of sexual acts and even coprophilia. It is a no-holds-barred approach that at its core sought to eschew any form of social propriety or technical mastery, and employed non professional actors chosen not for their skills but for their quirks, “almost like found objects: the character fell somewhere between the intention of the script and the personality of the actor.”
Ludlam would eventually abandon this method – and move on to somewhat more conventionally linear plots in his more mature works of the 1970’s – but it perfectly embodied the iconoclastic spirit of the 1960s, (Conquest was first performed in 1967) when Andy Warhol’s films were glamorizing gender-bending, drug-addicted misfits, and the nude performers of The Living Theatre’s kept being arrested for indecent exposure.
The current production, directed by Ludlam’s former collaborator and life companion Everett Quinton, emerges from the cavernous black box of La Mama’s revered stage as somewhat of an archeological artifact, a quaint relic of a bygone age. With shock value as its raison d’être, and its focus on stylistic ploys – with vague references to American Imperialism thrown in for good measure – Conquest belongs to a school of non-professional theatre that drew its energy from a youthful and purely anti-establishment ethos, encapsulated not just by its methods but also by its endearingly shoddy productions and by the out-of-the-way basements and garages that were its platform.
This slick, strikingly theatrical production is too grand for its own good. The imposing set by Robert Savina – dramatically lit by Christopher Weston – and the epic musical score are somewhat at odds with the insouciant nature of the script and the willfully amateurish performances of its cast. The sprawling expanse of the space and, in particular, the action – concentrated for substantial lengths of time upstage – endow the production with a ritualistic quality and a theatrical gravitas ill-suited to the zaniness of the proceedings.
Its committed cast, headed by Mr. Quinton in the dual role of Zabina, Queen of Mars, and Cosroe, her brother, includes, most notably, Beth Dodye Bass as the hilarious Natolia, Queen of Saturn, and Jeanne Lauren Smith as the tragic Ebea, Zabina’s fatefully loyal maid.
CONQUEST OF THE UNIVERSE OR WHEN QUEENS COLLIDE, by Charles Ludlam, is at La Mama through November 19. Directed by Everett Quinton. With Everett Quinton, Géraldine Dulex, Beth Dodye Bass, Grant Neale, Jeanne Lauren Smith, John Gutierrez, Lenys Samá, Sommer Carbuccia, Shane Baker, Brian Belovitch, Eugene the Poogene and Jillian A. Goldstein. Costume design by Ramona Ponce; set design by Robert Savina; lighting design by Christopher Weston; sound design by Tim Schellenbaum; music by Peter Golub and Sean Carmichael; props design by Cricket Epstein. Tickets.