Faux Stakes, Real Laughs

Philip Campanaro, Charles Ludlam, Black-Eyed Susan, Everett Quinton, and Ethyl Eichelberger in the 1986 production of “The Artificial Jungle.” | ANITA AND STEVE SHEVETT

The summer of 1967 — 50 years ago, now! –– is remembered today for many things. It was the “Summer of Love” — the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and the Monterey Pop Festival brought together many of the top musical acts of the day. But it was also known as the “long, hot summer,” when race riots erupted across the United States. It was a tumultuous time of radical change — and in the middle of it all, a brilliant actor, director, and playwright named Charles Ludlam broke away from John Vaccaro’s experimental Playhouse of the Ridiculous to found his own Ridiculous Theatrical Company, bringing with him a troupe of actors who would become legendary, including Mario Montez, Black-Eyed Susan, Lola Pashalinski, Bill Vehr, and John Brockmeyer.

Ludlam’s brand of the style known as “The Ridiculous” was multi-faceted. A large portion of the company was openly gay. Drag performance was central to their art; “Camille” was to become one of Ludlam’s most famous roles as well as one of his most famous plays. Camp comedy was central to the Ridiculous sensibility, as was a firm grounding in the classics. Ludlam was just as likely to tweak the nose of Shakespeare or Wagner as he was Hollywood movies or vaudeville. High and low were thrust together in their work and New York audiences loved them for it, packing the company’s Sheridan Square theater for two decades until Ludlam died of AIDS in 1987. Ludlam’s lover and right hand, Everett Quinton, then took over leadership of the company and managed to keep it going for another decade.

Unthinkably, New York has now been without a Ridiculous Theatrical Company for 20 years, although its influence is everywhere — not just on stages, but in film and television. In his 1984 biography, “The Divine Bette Midler,” James Spada quoted the star as saying, “I got a great deal of my early inspiration from Charles Ludlam.” On the occasion of the company’s 25th anniversary, John Waters gushed, “I used to run away from Baltimore to New York as a teenager just to see them.”

TBTB launches loving revival of Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical classic

Fiftieth anniversary commemoration events are already underway. A public reading and panel discussion with original cast members was presented at CUNY’s Martin E. Segal Theatre Center on May 15, and Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB) is marking the occasion with the first New York revival of Ludlam’s last completed play, “The Artificial Jungle,” currently in previews and opening on June 8 (with readings of several other Ludlam works to take place on June 5, 12, and 19). Everett Quinton will direct.

“Our most recent production, last season’s ‘The Healing,’ was a heavy, ultra-realistic drama,” said Nicholas Viselli, artistic director of TBTB. “So I thought our next production ought to be a comedy. As it happens, our general manager Steve Asher also used to be the managing director of the Ridiculous. He reminded me that we are coming up on the 30th anniversary of Charles Ludlam’s death. That seemed rather a grim occasion for us to mark, but we also quickly realized that the 50th anniversary of the Ridiculous happens around the same time. The show will also be open during Pride Month. So it all tumbled into place. I like to say the project chose us.”

Rob Minutoli, David Harrell, Alyssa H. Chase, Anthony Michael Lopez, and Anita Hollander in Theater Breaking Through Barriers’ revival of “The Artificial Jungle,” through July 1 at the Clurman Theatre. | CAROL ROSEGG

“The Artificial Jungle” is a hilarious Hollywood noir parody owing much to movies like “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” The Ridiculous aspect is that the events of the story are transplanted to a pet shop, a highly unglamorous setting where the stakes are absurdly small. The tale is told compactly, with a cast of five.

For this reason, noted Quinton, “The Artificial Jungle” comes in second only to the two-hander “The Mystery of Irma Vep” as the Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s most-produced play nationwide. Yet the current production will be its first New York City revival. As it was the last play Ludlam ever appeared in, its selection will have even more significance.

“It’s a perfect little play, perfect story, perfect for actors,” Quinton said. “But it’s hard to play. It demands one thousand percent of your energy. We’re lucky to have a group of extremely talented people in the cast. It feels like a miracle.”

Perhaps even more miraculous: TBTB is an integrated company that is, according to its mission statement, “dedicated to advancing actors and writers with disabilities and changing the image of people with disabilities from dependence to independence.” Three of the five cast members are amputees, and one is legally blind.

“People tend to think of disability as limiting,” Viselli said, “but we want to show how the possibilities for people with disabilities are actually limitless. ‘The Artificial Jungle’ is a high-energy physical comedy, and yet the demands of the play are not an issue. The ongoing issue for us is always more, ‘Are we going to be able to do this without the audience being afraid for the actors?’ Because the actors themselves know they can do it in a way without compromising or dumbing it down and everyone is on board with that. That’s what this company is all about.”

Added Quinton, “Charles would have been very happy with this group.”

THE ARTIFICIAL JUNGLE | Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. | Through Jul. 1: Tue.–Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.–Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $52.25 at tbtb.org or 212-239-6200

For information on staged readings of Charles Ludlam’s “Turds in Hell” (Jun. 5), “Der Ring Gott Farblonjet” (Jun. 12), and “Galas” (Jun. 19), visit tbtb.org.