By Ron Fassler
When the actor-playwright-director Charles Ludlam died of AIDS in 1987 (at the age of only thirty-six), New York lost one of its most treasured resources. For twenty years, his Ridiculous Theatrical Company contained a group of fellow artists loyal to Ludlam, who together broke new ground in performing plays (mostly by Ludlam himself) that were devoted to political unrest. Never too serious (though always with some seriousness in mind), the satiric cavorting that went on masked a mischievous commentary on the human condition, with men and women in drag, subversively upending norms without being preachy. As the great film producer Sam Goldwyn once reportedly (and wisely) may have said: “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.”
In 1991, five years after his death, Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep was the most produced play in America. Of course, since those decades, many of his works have faded into obscurity and sometimes irrelevance. Besides being eclipsed by a number of absurdist plays that, in part, owe a great debt to his groundbreaking work, Ludlam’s plays also require a delicate touch, even if the originals were sometimes performed in a heavy-handed fashion. If that doesn’t make sense, it might a bit more if you were to take in the current revival of Galas: A Modern Tragedy, one of Ludlam’s final plays, which is currently in performance at the Theatre at St. John’s on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Yesterday afternoon’s matinee preview was my first time at a Ludlam play in many years and it brought back a certain nostalgia for me, as it did manage to capture what made them so fun back in the day. By that I mean its coarse and amateur theatricality—yet I do have to question if it’s one that audiences in 2019 is looking for anymore.
Everett Quinton is Galas in this new production, in a role based loosely on the Greek opera diva Maria Callas, and once performed by Ludlam himself (with Quinton as his co-star). Quinton was also Ludlam’s life-companion, and his spearheading this production is probably more a labor of love than anything else. Sadly, he doesn’t possess that rare quality Ludlam had as an actor to thoroughly inhabit a role without ever commenting on it. Frank Rich, in his New York Times review of the original 1983 production of Galas, wrote: “Though the Ridiculous troupe surrounding him can be campy, Mr. Ludlam is not interested in parodying femininity or doing a drag act but in getting honest laughs through precise physical business and flawless, slow-burn timing worthy of Jack Benny.” This is not the case in this new production, much to its detriment.
Though sporadically funny, it never reaches the heights. And since the play has a tragic element (it’s there in the subtitle), it doesn’t earn bragging rights to achieving that dimension either. Also directed by Quinton himself—he has gathered a game team of actors, but none felt capable of getting to that wittiest level of camp which otherwise might have made this production sing. For example, one of the better bits of comedy comes when Galas describes herself as “A music lover, no? I am music.” The line is almost thrown away by Quinton. But when seeing that it’s the embodiment of the character in three words, surely it could have used a bit more panache. It was during moments like these when I admired Galas more for its dedication than its execution.
Galas: A Modern Tragedy. Through June 28 at Theatre at St. John’s (81 Christopher Street, near Seventh Avenue). www.stjohnsnyc.org
Photos: Theo Cote