La Mama presents the anniversary production of Charles Ludlam’s experimental epic.
Charles Ludlam, playwright, was one of the founders of the now-iconic Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967. True to the name, much of his work is nothing short of ridiculous. “Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide” assaults the audience with a massive collage of moods all at once. The play is epic, often pulling material directly from literary and dramatic classics, occasionally hilarious, and unrelentingly vulgar. Director Everett Quinton, who appears in the play as Zabina and Cosroe, refers to the work as a “theater of rage” that reflects the sociopolitical frustrations of the 60’s.
In the sense of plot, “Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide” lives up to the promise of its title. Tamberlaine, played by Grant Neale, is the President of Earth and journeys across the universe from planet to planet, conquering the rulers of each and, one by one, adding them to his collection of sex slaves. Interplanetary orgies abound as galactic politics unfold in a visceral and gruesome fashion. This isn’t necessarily as funny as it sounds, however.
Occasionally, the play made clear and poignant political statements. These moments landed much better with certain audience members who weren’t as engaged by a scene involving a grown man defecating into a pie while singing a nursery rhyme.
The play’s final dramatic beat, arriving after two full intermission-free hours of madness and a mass death scene the melodrama of which would put Hamlet to shame, came when the most minor character in the play addressed the audience directly. He told us that all Americans were sexually disturbed and that the solution was to set up clinics for treating sexual perversions. And that was that.
Ludlam’s core theatrical belief was that every play/production should be an ‘experiment’. La Mama’s 50th anniversary presentation of “Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide” is certainly no exception. However, even with the concluding Freudian advice taken into consideration, it’s difficult to determine what exactly the hypothesis of this experiment was. The play is long, melodramatic, self-referential, gratuitously and violently sexual, and frequently disregards the fourth wall. Perhaps this experiment made more sense in the context of 1967, but today it came across as little more than a piece of grisly kitsch.
“Conquest of the World or When Queens Collide” is directed by Everett Quinton and presented by La Mama Experimental Theater Club at the Ellen Stewart Theater at 66 E 4th St New York, NY 10003 until November 19. The play stars Quinton, Grant Neale, Lenys Samá, and Brian Belovitch, among others.
Photo credit: La Mama.