By Bob Shuman
Theatregoers looking for an artistic reflection of the age of Harvey Weinstein might sit in on Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide, written by Charles Ludlam, a 1967 work from the Theatre of the Ridiculous, now playing at La MaMa until November 19. Superficially, the comedy is about the takeover of the solar system, a retelling of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine—there, the conqueror subjugates the Arab world–but elements of Hamlet, Candide, and Titus Andronicus, to name three, are also apparent. Offering a premonition of today, Ludlam’s unfeeling characters manipulate, objectify, and abuse subordinates in their lust for power and sex. Unlike the sickening Titus Andronicus, however, Ludlam’s pileups of abuses aren’t shocking or alarming–and no one needs to leave the theatre feeling queasy.
Much like listening to what is coming out about Hollywood and show business, those in the play know offenses are happening, but they’re too self-involved and power hungry to notice. Shakespeare might think the elements in Conquest of the Universe should add up to tragedy but Ludlam’s characters only see momentary diversions and opportunities for histrionics. Although this makes the cast difficult to distinguish—actors might play the opposite sex or take multiple parts—perhaps what is most important to emphasize is that, in this world, no one is in real pain–they can no longer feel it and they’re too busy anyway. Virtually all the assembled components stand in the way of finding what’s human: loud and garish sets and props (blacklight planets, huge plastic phalluses, and even a seashell worthy of Bette Midler); costumes of neon green, orange, red, silver, and blue; scene structuring with no builds or modulation; as well as the artificiality of the language: “I free mankind from the yoke of reason, which weighs upon it. Rape and behead them.”
Identification with real, nuanced emotional distress is a point that recently flummoxed Alec Baldwin and made him shut down his twitter account—he couldn’t see that anyone was being hurt in the sex-to play schemes of the entertainment world. Despite her own protests regarding her rape, Rose McGowan believes, “no one cared.” Being ignored, but used, is captured in the lively, blaring, attention-grabbing, “anti-moral” Theatre of the Ridiculous–perhaps this is its point–evidenced by what was happening during the time in which it was born: deep discrimination against gays and minorities, the Vietnam War, and to come, the AIDS epidemic. America, in the ‘60s, would probably be seen as rather heartless compared to what is politically correct today—and the Weinstein story is a holdover from years when many felt they had to accept the unacceptable (in fact, felt they had to be tough enough to take it). Like a 3,000-year-old shark with razor-sharp teeth, dredged up from the bottom of the sea, Weinstein reminds us of what’s inhuman, in a hypercompetitive business, ironically one about feelings.
Like a three-dimensional Drudge Report, Ludlam’s theatre demonstrates why society is too preoccupied to care. The playwright offers distractions, from blood-craving stories of the Renaissance to dirty jokes and puns from below Fourteenth Street; from discussion of the conflict in Indo-China (“Life is a war that never ends”) to references to Elmer Fudd and the Three Stooges; from poetry, stylized or lewd, to the tough talk of the city and boroughs. Conquest of the Universe is an allegory about the Weinstein era, written long before anyone ever heard of him. Entertaining as it is, the play also shows the significance of Ludlam’s vision and work. Like a Rorschach, important art can announce itself without being premeditated—it simply describes where we are, now. At the end of the play, Ludlam explains it is time to stop: a witch says: “Life is but a lying dream. He only wakes who casts the world aside.” Previous to this, the author has been temporally prescriptive: “The vast majority of men as well as women are sexually disturbed. . . . What is necessary, therefore, is the establishment of a sufficient number of clinics for . . . treatment.” Harvey Weinstein’s lawyers might have been listening. As many know, the tyrannical producer was booked into an Arizona sex addiction clinic–for a week.
As it was, he missed counseling.
© by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
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ABOUT THE ARTISTS:
Charles Ludlam was an American actor, director, and playwright. Ludlam joined John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous, and after a falling out, became one of the founders of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York City in 1967. He taught or staged productions at New York University, Connecticut College for Women, Yale University, and Carnegie Mellon University. He won fellowships from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts. He won six Obie Awards, the Rosamund Gilder Award for distinguished achievement in the theater in 1986 and in 2009, Ludlam was inducted posthumously into the American Theater Hall of Fame. He wrote nearly 30 plays, some of which include: Turds in Hell, an adaptation of The Satyricon (1969); Bluebeard (1970), an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s TheIsland of Dr Moreau; Corn (1972); Camille (1973); Der Ring Gott Farblonjet (1977), an adaptation of The Ring Cycle; The Enchanted Pig (1979); Exquisite Torture (1982); The Mystery of Irma Vep (1984); Galas (1983), inspired by the life of Maria Callas; and The Artificial Jungle (1986)
Everett Quinton recently directed Charles Ludlam’s, THE ARTIFICIAL JUNGLE with Theater Breaking Through Barriers. Everett also directed IN THE BAR OF A TOKYO HOTEL by Tennessee Willliams with Theater 292 and THE WINTER’S TALE by William Shakespeare with Yorick Theater. As an actor Everett recently appeared as Enobarbus and one of five Cleopatras in Shakespeare’s ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. Everett also appeared as Paulina and Autolycus in THE WINTER’S TALE, and Idris Seabright in DROP DEAD PERFECT, to name a few. Everett is a long time member of THE RIDICULOUS THEATRICAL COMPANY where he appeared in Charles Ludlam’s CAMILLE, BLUEBEARD AND THE SECRET LIVES OF THE SEXISTS. Georg Osterman’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE and BROTHER TRUCKERS. As well as his own plays, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, LINDA AND CARMEN.
CONQUEST OF THE UNIVERSE cast includes: 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.
Production images by Theo Cote
(from top): Shane Baker, Beth Dodye Bass and Everett Quinton
Shane Baker and Everett Quinton
Ludlam photo: Pig Iron Theatre Company