“This isn’t farce. This isn’t absurd. This is absolutely ridiculous!” Theater critic Brendan Gill
Charles Ludlam (1943-1987) wrote, directed, and starred in 29 plays for the Ridiculous Theatre Company he founded after exiting John Vaccaro’s Play House of The Ridiculous in 1967. The artist excelled at gender bending pastiche by aiming for forthright laughs, rather than sheer camp.
On the 50th Anniversary of The Stonewall Riots, a production of 1983’s Galas: A Modern Tragedy has been revived for the first time featuring Ludlam’s partner Everett Quinton as the heroine. (Quinton played the maid, Bruna Lina Rasta in the original presentation.)
Based on the life of opera diva Maria Callas, this mostly factual piece takes a fisheye lens to over the top artistic personalities – including drag queens – while respectful of talent and sympathetic to implicit burdens. It may be parody, but it’s not frivolous.
Maria Magdalena Galas (Everett Quinton) travels third class from America to sing at The Verona Arena. An old trench coat belted over her sizable shape (and grandmother shoes), she’s at first not recognized by opera-loving escort (and brickmaker), Giovanni Baptista Mercanteggini (Beth Dodye Bass). “We’re both music lovers,” he comments sharing a café table. “I am not a music lover, I am MUSIC,” snaps the formidable Galas. Singing is all she’s ever known or cared about.
The uber fan makes our heroine a no strings offer she can’t refuse – to support and manage her for a year after which they’ll decide whether to continue. She tours, they marry, he remains home. Love letters pass between them.
When the diva returns, she’s a changed woman – appreciably thinner, stylish, blonde, and with considerably inflated ego. Housekeeper Bruna Lina Rasta (Jenne Vath) – think histrionic Edward Gorey character – is looked down upon and told to do her job with “a manner of excessive politeness,” before Galas discovers she was an important vocalist who went mad. Rasta, who becomes indispensable, is something of a Sybil.
Standing her ground, Galas eventually sings at La Scala despite behind the scenes machinations – and later loses her voice there. She has a one-upmanship audience with Pope Sixtus VII (Shane Baker) whose mitre, cross and ceremonial banner are rainbow-colored, meets and is seduced by Aristotle Plato Socrates Odysseus (Mark Erson) and the rich hangers-on surrounding him, and ultimately leaves her loyal husband and career only to wait by the phone. The show ends, as it must, in tragedy.
Everett Quinton is wonderful, his Galas a proud, yet simpatico spitfire.
Beth Dodye Bass offers a solid Mercanteggini in direct contrast to his mate.
Jenne Vath’s extremely exaggerated Bruna Lina Rasta has fits and starts of pushing too hard, then creating apt moments of madness – sackcloth and self-flagellation before the Pope a prime example.
Though movement is entertaining and use of the aisle especially winning, an outside director (rather than Quinton himself) might’ve helped comic timing and character specifics.
Two-dimensional sets by Jim Boutin are stylized, charming and evocative. Ramona Ponce’s costumes are both grand and flattering as are assorted wigs.
Lighting within the challenge of a non theater environment and sound (we hear the stunning Callas at intervals) by Robert Neapolitan are both effective.
Propriety and determined roles be damned. When the play was first aired, women playing men and vice verse caused something of a frisson. Today, that and more are commonplace. Still, what the loosely written piece has to say remains valid. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come and perhaps how far we have to go.
Also featuring: Maude Lardner Burke, Geraldine Dulux, Chris Johnson
Photos by Theo Cote
Opening: Everett Quinton (Galas), Jenne Vath (Bruna), Beth Dodye Bass (Mercanteggini)
Charles Ludlam’s Galas- A Modern Tragedy
Part of the year-long series: Rebels, Revolutionaries, and Rowdies
Celebrating Stonewall 50
Directed by and Starring Everett Quinton
Through June 28, 2019
Theatre at St. John’s Lutheran Church
81 Christopher Street