“A theme that threatens to destroy one’s whole value system. Treat the material in a madly farcical manner without losing the seriousness of the theme. Show how paradoxes arrest the mind. Scare yourself a bit along the way.” – Charles Ludlam
During the 1960s, New York City experienced a surge in alternative theatre troupes. A counter-culture to commercial theatre, this popular new genre ranged from Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater to the Living Theatre of Judith Malina and Julian Beck. In 1967, Charles Ludlam contributed to this trend by founding The Ridiculous Theatrical Company.
The principle aim of the company, as stated in Ludlam’s manifesto was: “To get beyond nihilism by revaluing combat.” Over the next two decades Ludlam’s impact on the theatrical canon spanned over two-dozen plays and was partially responsible for giving a more public voice to emerging queer theatre. The Ridiculous Theatrical Company tackled topics and taboos in a hilariously absurd style. For instance, Ludlam, who also acted in his plays, would often portray female characters toying with gender and social norms. He was often quoted saying that his plays were “without a stink of art.” Ludlam died shortly after being diagnosed with AIDS in 1987. The Ridiculous Theatrical Company continued on under the direction of fellow member and Ludlam’s partner, Everett Quinton. Quinton has directed new productions of his partner’s plays, including the recent production by Theater Breaking Through Barriers of “The Artificial Jungle,” which opened June 8th at the Theatre Row’s Harold Clurman Theatre.
Written in 1986, “The Artificial Jungle,” orbits around a family owned and operated pet store in New York City. Taking a campy noir tone from the start, the play introduces a bored wife, Roxanne (Alyssa H. Chase), who co-owns the store with her husband and is desperate for a little excitement in her life. Chester Nurdiger (David Harrell) is her simple, but also conniving clod of a husband. They share their home and shop with Chester’s overly doting mom, Mother Nurdiger (Anita Hollander). Aside from Chester’s cousin, officer Frankie Spinelli (Rob Minutoli) who shows up every Thursday for domino night, there’s not a lot going on in the lives of the Nurdiger gang. It isn’t until Roxanne convinces Chester to hire someone to help out around the shop that the excitement picks up. Zachary Slade, (Anthony Michael Lopez) a younger man with a taste for double-entendres, takes the position and soon Roxanne’s lonely universe isn’t so lonely anymore.
What comes next is the well-known trope of the conspiring lovers plotting the death of the cuckold husband to cash in his insurance policy, only this time with a piranha feeding frenzy twist. After the deed is done, the lovers now must battle with what comes after: the guilt, passing blame, and of course, keeping the secret. It’s not until Zack is overcome with grief and paranoia that he slips and Mother Nurdiger overhears what they’ve done. Unfortunately, for Mother Nurdiger, the shock of this revelation causes a stroke leaving her paralyzed — only her flickering eyes can display her judgment. Now, with an invalid ex-mother-in-law, who throws some vicious side eye and shade, Roxanne is forced to keep up appearances so as to not alert Frankie. She’s back where she started, in a do-nothing lifestyle.
While the play reads and feels like a quick, quippy, campy romp of noir romance, intrigue, and general foolishness, Quinton’s revival comes off as heavy, clunky, and uneven in its performances. Despite the noir-like-feel the dialogue and plot lend themselves to, the atmosphere and production don’t correlate. The set is light and uplifting, it looks like it could double as a child’s jungle inspired nursery. This could be an intentional contrast to the dark core of the play. However, it feels like it misses an opportunity to provide for some more visual danger of the actual jungle that is created by our murderous protagonists in their artificial pet store.
Mr. Quinton (who originated the role of Zack Slade 30 years prior) isn’t able to maintain a consistent comedic pace for his cast, making the performance fall flat at times. Ms. Chase delivers the most maintained performance of a noir-style but this feels fruitless alongside her lover, with Mr. Lopez’s modern, subdued and grounded portrayal of Zack. Ms. Hollander and Mr. Harrell, however, seem in sync as an over-the-top mother and devoted mommy’s boy. Their chemistry, while compelling, doesn’t seem to smooth the uneven tone set by the rest of production. The entire cast, at times, felt as if they were struggling with the complexity that comes with this style of theatre.
“The Artificial Jungle” stems from the Theatre of the Ridiculous that was created fifty years ago. Back then this type of theatre was new, creative, and pushing the envelope of the avant-garde. Now, the idea of a cross-gender casting isn’t shocking, but more often the norm, even in commercial theatre. So, as I filed out the Harold Clurman theatre, I found myself asking, “why this play now?”
Often in fraught political climates, like we find ourselves in now, productions carry more weight than they would otherwise. Or maybe, we put more weight on productions to help draw larger connections to what’s going on in the world. Dark political times are usually great for new plays or for revivals to take on a new significance, (see: the recent outcry at The Public). Theatre has a way of becoming a coping mechanism for artists and goers alike. It allows us to deal with emotions we’re grappling to understand — it can bring, sometimes, catharsis.
Ludlam wasn’t terribly concerned about what political message his theatre would express, although he admitted that his art was political in certain “spheres of influence.” He said, “Art is not meant to tear society down, it’s meant to enhance it.” Maybe it was because I spent the afternoon listening to our Attorney General “testify” before the senate that I needed this production to have some higher meaning. Maybe I was guilty of putting too much significance on a Ridiculous play to help me cope with frustration of this current administration.
In the lobby of the Clurman was a poster board of Ludlam’s manifesto on display. When I read the “Instructions for use,” I realized something. The purpose of art, he argues, is to test out a dangerous idea. Such a challenge should threaten the audience’s values and treat them in a ludic manner without sacrificing the seriousness of it. I realized the question isn’t, “why this play now?” it’s “why this type of theatre now?” Despite, being outdated in its ‘edginess,’ the heart of Ludlam’s mission is still very much relevant in the time we’re living in. Donald Trump as president of the United States is a dangerous idea. His administration thus far is a threat to the values of many and has been nothing short of farcical. It seems that our reality has taken on the lifestyle of the Theatre of the Ridiculous. Ludlam once said, “The world outside of the theatre is reflected in the theatre. But how? I would be very pretentious if I had a theory about it how works.” In light of this, it may have never been timelier, than it is now, to revisit this fifty-year old theatrical style.