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Everett Quinton celebrates the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's 50th birthday
Charles Ludlam's Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide didn't always have two titles. When the playwright and performer penned the raucous comedy in 1967, he planned to do it with John Vaccaro and his Playhouse of the Ridiculous. But a rift between the two men prompted Ludlam to form his own troupe, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and both outfits produced the same show under different names. "John got an injunction so Charles couldn't do his own play!" says actor and director Everett Quinton, who was Ludlam's partner onstage and off until the latter's death in 1987. "So Charles changed the title to When Queens Collide. [Ridiculous Theatrical Company cofounder] Mario Montez suggested it since Charles and John had a fight -- they were the two queens who were colliding!"
Since Ludlam's passing, Quinton has carried the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's torch. Though the troupe no longer exists, its signature shows are still mounted, especially The Mystery of Irma Vep (Quinton starred in the original and 1998 productions, and directed the 2014 revival for Red Bull Theater). To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the troupe's founding, Quinton is directing and acting in a revival of the company's very first show, Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide, which runs at La MaMa through November 19.
Although Quinton, 65, appeared in the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's 1979 revival of Conquest, he wasn't around for that inaugural production, and most of the artists involved are no longer living. So helming the show has been a bit of an archaeological dive into the roots of Off-Off Broadway scene. "I only know stories," Quinton admits. "They were kids, it was the summer of love, it was drug fests. I know Charles had the urge to revitalize the theatre, but I don't know what it really was like. By the time I came [in 1976], a taming influence had occurred. They were still daring and fun plays, but they weren't this."
Conquest is an outrageous, intergalactic romp loosely inspired by Christopher Marlowe's 16th-century historical epic Tamburlaine filled with drag, violence, outré humor, sex, and myriad high and lowbrow references. "Charles' early plays were all collages as he hadn't yet put his thoughts in order," Quinton says. "There was this fearlessness happening back then. Conquest was a reaction to Vietnam and the repressive '50s, the pabulum we were being fed -- Leave It to Beaver, Donna Reed, that kind of crap. My mother and my father were 'my country right or wrong' people. But in the '60s, we were saying, 'If my country's wrong, fix it.' Working on Conquest now, I see the anger and rage at the system and the lies. If you look at Charles' plays as he progressed, Conquest and [another early work] Turds in Hell were almost like a declaration of independence from the normal, white-bread theatre."
Since La MaMa, like the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, helped pioneer Off-Off Broadway, it seemed like the perfect venue to host this 50th anniversary tribute. "I thought let's take the opportunity to make sure younger audiences and artists have the opportunity to hear these plays," says La MaMa artistic director Mia Yoo, who has also scheduled free readings of two other Ludlam works: Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde (November 8) and Stage Blood (November 15). "To be totally frank we're so conservative now, not only in terms of content but the way we create plays. Charles Ludlam broke with convention and thought about storytelling very differently than the traditional linear way. There was something out of the box that was so different in his approach to theatre-making that younger audiences could benefit from."
When Yoo invited Quinton to do a show in honor of the anniversary, she said he could pick any Ridiculous Theatrical Company play he wanted. He went with Conquest not just because it was the first, but because of its prescience: after all, it's about the blowhard President of Earth conquering leaders of various planets and dominating them sexually. "This play, you would think it was written for today when the stuff starts coming out of people's mouths," Quinton says. "It's very timely. It holds up quite well and still maintains its rage."
Though Quinton has barely touched the script, there are certain bits of in-your-face staging from 50 years ago that won't be resurrected. "At the end Bajazeth, King of Mars, shits in a bucket," Quinton says. "Charles always told me that the original actor stuck cocktail franks up his ass and shit them out on the stage. I can't get any actor to do that!"
But don't dismiss Conquest as simply crude. "There's this absolute beauty in the play and then it gets contrasted with this absolute crassness," Quinton says. "Charles always said it was not enough to leave audiences with a message. What you need to do is rock them in their seats and let them deal with whatever they have to deal with when they leave. I'm very shocked at what shocks people. I got jaded very early on in my life."
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Everett Quinton in Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide. Photos by Theo Cote.
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