"Ridiculous Theater, Scourge of Human Folly" is the manifesto appended to the collected works of Charles Ludlam. It's one of those short documents, like William Blake's "Proverbs From Hell," that teases and fascinates and draws you back time and again. Anyone who thinks Ludlam was just some outrageous cross-dressing camp comedian would do well to take another glance. For instance, Ludlam says that the aim of his theater is "to get beyond nihilism by revaluing combat." Not what one would have expected from the author of Isle of the Hermaphrodites, Turds in Hell, or that insane tribute/nose-thumb to Wagner (with its totally invented, Yiddish-flavored language), Der Ring Gott Farblonget.
Or try Ludlam's first two axioms: "1.) You are a mockery of your own ideals. If not, you have set your ideals too low. 2.) The things one takes seriously are one's weakness." Makes you want to go back and take another look at the plays, doesn't it?
Well, you can start with Bluebeard, currently on the boards at the UNO Downtown Theatre. Described as "a melodrama in three acts," Bluebeard was first presented in 1970 on an improvised stage in a Manhattan bar, with Ludlam himself in the title role. It was a surprise hit.
Bluebeard is a weird play. If you are expecting a camp laugh riot, you are likely to be disappointed. It is funny, but, if that was all Ludlam wanted it to be, he could have made it funnier. He had a devastating wit and an irresistible sense of humor. But, as you can see from his manifesto, Ludlam was after something else as well. He was passionately searching for some kind of dramatic spectacle that would (to use an unhappy recent phrase) shock and awe in a new way. But he wanted this new theater to incorporate some of the lost richness of classical theater -- as well as the liveliness of popular art forms, like the movies or pulp novels. This led him to a wild, free-flowing eclecticism, whose disparate parts are held together by the authenticity of his vision.
At the UNO Downtown Theatre, director George Patterson has assembled a topnotch cast. Part of the trick in playing Ludlam is to bring the character to life -- in between the lines, as it were, since the lines and situations are so utterly bizarre. In this fine art, Dorian Rush as a "hideous chambermaid" named Mrs. Maggot and Brian Peterson as Miss Flora Cubbidge, a buxom governess, are the most at ease -- the former sailing blithely over-the-top; the latter struggling artfully to retain a certain decorum in the most indecorous of postures. Jack Long as the hunchback butler and Charles Grant as Lamia the Leopard woman also have many fine moments. As does Lisa Davis, who brings the show to its apocalyptic climax by revealing a "new and gentle genital" grafted upon the spot of her former pudenda by the idealistic Bluebeard. I should mention that the Krewe of Satyricon, which produced the show, is graciously offering this procedure (supposedly performed by a top surgical team at Oschner Clinic) as a door prize, so be sure to keep your ticket stub.
Rusty Tennant gives us a ferocious, full-steam-ahead mad scientist of a Bluebeard -- and if one wonders at times what a bit more subtlety might give, one never doubts this is the tutelary demon of the island and a figure to be reckoned with. The R-rated scene between Bluebeard and Miss Cubbidge is a perfect match of mismatched partners and totally hilarious.
Max Bernardi's gloomy stone castle backdrop, with vaginal doorway, effectively sets the tone for all that follows (though the staging left me a bit confused in the third act about which side of the door we were on). And some of the set pieces are a hoot, like the pink harpsichord whose legs are human arms, cast in gold.
Bluebeard was not only Ludlam's first big hit, it was a breakthrough artistically as well, since it marked the beginning of his own whacked-out sense of "the well-made play." Nonetheless, I don't think it's among the very best of his scripts. Perhaps, we've traveled too far from Victorian melodrama to get much fun out of a burlesquing of its conventions. Fortunately, as usual, Ludlam is all over the place. After all, what do slightly clad, muscular male angels -- good (Matthew Ragas) and bad (Rob Thomas) -- have to do with anything, other than the imagination running riot? Even Hecate, the Goddess of Hell (Donnie Jay), puts in a cameo appearance!
Ultimately, the play is not unlike Bluebeard's own experiments: not entirely successful perhaps, but fiendishly amusing to observe, if you're so inclined.
- Jack Long and Dorian Rush camp it up in the Krewe of Satyricon's current staging of Charles Ludlam's Bluebeard, at the UNO Downtown Theatre.