CK: The name Charles Ludlam looms large in the annals of recent theater history, but I imagine for many people my age, he’s mostly just that—a name. I was born the year after Ludlam died of AIDS, and my awareness of him comes primarily from books and the remembrances of colleagues, friends and admirers. With the exception of his popular penny dreadful spoof The Mystery of Irma Vep, much of his work is rarely revived. For that reason among many, the new production of his 1983 dark comedy Galas, directed by and starring his life partner Everett Quinton, shot quickly to the top of my must list. David, what is your experience of Ludlam and his work?
DF: In my case, I saw Ludlam and his troupe—the Ridiculous Theatrical Company (RTC)—before I read any of his plays. It was my only experience of the group in performance, unfortunately—in The Artificial Jungle, which I believe was Ludlam’s last new work before he died. I can remember it pretty vividly, but in part because I was quite perplexed. I’d expected a campy romp, and it was certainly that, at least in part. But it was more than that, and the anarchic, deliberate crudeness of the style frankly put me off a bit. It was very “downtown,” I guess, and unfamiliar. Later, when I read some of Ludlam’s other plays, I enjoyed them—but like you, I recognized how much they needed to be seen in performance, with the imprint of the RTC’s very distinctive style. That’s one reason it’s so thrilling now to see Quinton in Galas, 36 years after the show’s first production!
CK: I definitely expected a high camp factor from Galas—and in some sense, it delivered just that. What else could you call an extended scene that features the Pope, decked out in rainbow-pride accoutrements, debating the merits of Wagner with a tempestuous diva? It’s also fair to say I anticipated a certain level of poignancy watching Quinton revisit this work after three-plus decades, in a performance space that’s a stone’s throw from the old RTC headquarters on Sheridan Square. Two things I didn’t expect, perhaps unfairly: How tightly constructed the work is as a dramatic play, and how deeply moving Quinton’s performance would be on its own terms, divorced from his history with Ludlam, RTC and that particular moment in time.
DF: Before we go further, how about a brief summary/explanation for the uninitiated? Galasis a thinly veiled bio-play about Maria Callas, which compresses into a couple of hours her rise to become the greatest opera Prima Donna of her day… and subsequent degeneration, both vocal and emotional. It is for sure a dramatic story, and at least part of the camp factor here is realized through Ludlam’s deliberately sly, often satirical, Douglas Sirk-style exploration of the melodrama. (That it’s produced on a shoestring budget only adds to the absurdity and enjoyment.) But as you say, it’s also deeply, and unexpectedly, moving.
CK: And even within that barebones budget, Quinton manages to create a transformative experience that not only evokes the glamour of the period (1950s Europe) but, for my money, puts the big-budget technical spectacle now common on Broadway to shame. Set designer Jim Boutin uses crudely drawn cardboard cutouts to represent everything from an Italian train station to a glitzy Left Bank apartment; the set pieces are often moved by hand. Honestly, though, when a group of actors and stagehands came together to simulate the train’s arrival, it thrilled me more than King Kong scaling the Empire State Building a couple blocks uptown. Similarly, costume designer Ramona Ponce clearly had a limited budget to work with, but she evokes refined elegance in the dresses and jewels worn by Quinton as Maria Magdalena Galas. Hoary though it might sound, less really can be more.
DF: We often associate camp with broad humor, but one huge takeaway for me about Galas is that it’s much more than that. (Warning: I’m getting on my Camp High Horse now.) The drag performance part of Galas, which originally featured Ludlam as the Prima Donna, is of course a huge dichotomy: a character at once male and female. I was struck yesterday by how much of the play—and of Callas’ own life, really—was also full of extreme dichotomies: she was a Brooklyn girl who became an international Prima Donna; a dedicated artist and a capricious “star”; generous or a total bitch; sparklingly happy or (at the end, in particular), profoundly depressed.
CK: Camp itself is rooted in the idea that the camp object exists in its own essential form and as something onto which the observer projects a deeper meaning. It’s all about dichotomies. So in that sense, who better to take up in a camp portrait than Callas? Her entire life was a study in contrasts, including her status as an icon unto herself as much as a performer, if not more.
DF: That Quinton himself can go from over-the-top hilarious shtick to something utterly sincere and tragic—sometimes within a few lines—is, to me, theatrical wizardry. Frankly, he looks less like Maria Callas than Mary Wickes, and the costuming plays on the absurdity. But it’s also absolutely perfect casting, as Callas herself for some represents a kind of priestess who connected us to a nearly lost world of 19th Century opera. Quinton himself is our connection to the RTC theatrical aesthetic. (Really, seeing Galas in a church, as it’s presented here, may be a more apt space than any conventional theater could be.) But the best of his work is great acting by any standard.
CK: “Breathtaking” is usually on my no-fly list when it comes to theater reviewing, but can you think of a more accurate way to describe how subtly, and effortlessly, Quinton shifts between Galas the star persona and Maria the vulnerable, insecure woman? Or how he imbues the smallest moments with a wellspring of understated humanity? I felt it when Galas, in the first scene, describes the hardships of growing up in Greece during wartime: “I sang to the soldiers for food. Some of the girls sold their bodies. But I could sing so I never had to do that. We knew hunger then.” The script follows this plaintive memory with a button, referencing Galas’s present corpulence: “As you can see, I’ve made up for that since.” Quinton lands the affecting introduction without turning it bathetic, which disarms the audience for the punchline. It’s simply marvelous. And he isn’t alone when it comes to mastery of the Ludlam style.
DF: Yes, you can really see the whole company channeling the RTC manner.
CK: Jenne Vath seems especially at home in the outrageous contours of her character, Bruna, Galas’s severe but devoted maid. Costumed like a cross between a professional mourner and one of Tim Burton’s apparitions, she shows no fear of the outsized physical and verbal comedy required by her role. She also communicates the deep and complicated bond between Galas and Bruna—their final scene together, in the Paris flat where Maria rots away during the final years of her life, is supremely touching.
DF: And let’s also point out that this project is being produced during Pride month, which this year also commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, which took place literally around the corner from St. John’s Church, where Galas is playing. The subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—incorporation of the rainbow motif in the show’s scenery and costumes is a nice touch. But really, the history is all around us. Also, one final hat tip to the sound design, and in particular the genius choice to use Lina Bruna-Rasa’s over-the-top “Vissi d’arte”—which, in a very cunning way, winks at Ludlam’s script. (I won’t say anymore — you’ll have to see it to find out.)
CK: This excellent, important revival suggests it may be time for a more general revival of the Ludlam catalog. His work still clearly has a lot to say, especially while artists like Quinton are still around to interpret it.
DF: As the Pope himself might say (when he’s not arguing with Maria about the quality of Wagner’s libretti): “Amen, my son.”
Galas plays through June 28th at the Theatre at St. John’s. For more information, visit the show’s website.