When you think of the storied, experimental Ridiculous Theatrical Company, co-founded by the über-talented, unabashedly queer Charles Ludlam in the late 1960s, what first comes to mind is comic camp, followed soon after by freaky frivolity. Certainly the play titles alone suggest a warped brand of ridiculousness: “The Mystery of Irma Vep” (an anagram for vampire), “Whores of Babylon,” and “Turds in Hell.”
But there’s more than meets the eye in the Ridiculous canon. Deep beneath the cross-gender casting, campy performances, gaudy costumes, broad humor, improvisational acting, and surrealistic settings lurks a bedrock of intellectual acuity.
This is particularly evident in the raunchy, respectful 50th-anniversary revival of “Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide,” the troupe’s debut offering that starred writer Ludlam, who also directed. How fitting that the work is being celebrated by La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, a vital incubator of Off-Off Broadway theater since 1961 and a showcase for the Theatre of the Ridiculous, as the genre came to be called.
Inspired by Christopher Marlowe’s 1587 masterwork of depravity “Tamburlaine the Great,” “Conquest” is considered a reaction to the brutal cultural upheavals during the mid-20th century such as fascism, McCarthyism, and the Vietnam War. The caustically comic fantasia is jam-packed with a dizzying array of cultural and political references spanning hundreds of years, with nods to the Bible, Shakespeare, George Orwell, 1950s B movies (“Queen of Outer Space”), Frank Sinatra (“Fly Me to the Moon”), Vietnam, and much more. I’m not going to pretend I caught even half of them.
The convoluted plot is almost beside the point. While the source material has Tamberlaine (Ludlam’s spelling of the Marlowe character) invading a bunch of kingdoms like Babylon, Persia, and Africa, in this version he is a space invader, conquering the planets one by one, using tactics of exquisite savagery that equal the original’s.
This maniacal dictator (portrayed with gusto by Grant Neale who, amazingly, was in the original production) calls himself “President of Earth,” enslaving Bajazeth and Zabina, King and Queen of Mars, and Natolia, Queen of Saturn, among others. He’s the epitome of power and avarice gone horribly awry (any resemblance to the current occupant in the White House is purely coincidental). The evil president wields sex as a weapon, as we see him gleefully pound his way into power. Not to worry — the sex is stylized and simulated.
“I free mankind from the yoke of reason which weighs upon it. Rape and behead them,” Tamberlaine says, referring to the dancing Firewomen of Mars.
There’s even a castration scene meant to elicit eeks as well as guffaws. Ludlam’s Elizabethan-esque dialogue is spiked with bawdy double entendres, and penis and scatological jokes abound. The Queen of Venus beckons a suitor to “Come into my chamber” and someone else demands, “Show me to Uranus.” Ba-dump-bump.
In the end, does Tamberlaine get his just desserts? Let’s just say that the dessert he gets ain’t pretty, and John Waters would approve.
Leading the rambunctious cast of 11 portraying more than 20 “dramatis personae” (as labeled in the program) is none other than longtime Ridiculous veteran Everett Quinton, who was Ludlam’s partner and took over as artistic director after Ludlam’s life was cut all too short by AIDS 30 years ago. Not only does he shine playing the dual roles of Zabina and her incestuous twin brother, Cosroe, he also directs this production with flair.
Given that the early Ridiculous offerings were often gritty affairs with crude production values in cheap basement or loft spaces, this may be the most sophisticated “Conquest” yet. Robert Savina has designed gorgeous, heavenly planet-like orbs suspended high above the action, and the lighting by Christopher Weston and sound design by Tim Schellenbaum are first-rate. Also impressive are Ramona Ponce’s wild costumes — some fashioned with found materials like CDs and what look like wire hangers — which retain the raw, homespun spirit of the original.
And yet, something is amiss. Despite a committed cast and a solid production, why does this “Conquest” fail to fully capture our hearts?
Perhaps it is a victim of its own success. In the 1960s, when naturalistic realism dominated the stage, the Theatre of the Ridiculous was radical and subversive. These days, the antics onstage register as relatively quaint.
The Ridiculous sensibility has been thoroughly absorbed into mainstream culture, where gender-bending is everywhere on film, television, and Broadway, videos of outrageous carnal acts (with or without space costumes) are just a few keyboard clicks away, and jeering drag queens are replacing clowns at kiddies’ birthday parties.
CONQUEST OF THE UNIVERSE OR WHEN QUEENS COLLIDE | Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa, 66 E. Fourth St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave. | Through Nov. 19: Thu.-Sat .at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 4 p.m. | $30 at lamama.org or 212-352-3101 | 100 mins., no intermission