Two very different kinds of geniuses come alive in the two choices for the December Playbill Readers Circle.
Charles Ludlam of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company is the subject of an engaging biography the play QED portrays physicist Richard Feynman during a pivotal time in his life.
"Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam" by David Kaufman (Applause)
With characteristic modesty and restraint, Charles Ludlam regarded himself as his era’s combination of Moliere and Shakespeare. Well, okay, probably every playwright does, down deep. But not every playwright gets his own repertory theatre group —in Ludlam’s case the Off Off-Broadway Ridiculous Theatrical Company —and not every playwright has the energy, creativity and guts to turn out 29 produced stage scripts, ranging from comedies to tragedies to musicals.
There likely would have been even more if Ludlam had not been cut down by AIDS in 1987 at age 44. David Kaufman’s meticulously researched and delectably dishy biography takes readers inside Ludlam’s childhood home, inside his threadbare East Village apartment, inside his friends’ beach houses, inside the cramped, sweaty dressing rooms at the Sheridan Square Theatre, and finally even into the hospital room where he died. Those who were lucky enough to see Ludlam perform in his own works probably best remember his drag performances, especially the title role of Camille and Salammbo. But, as this book outlines, Ludlam created a wide variety of roles for himself and for his scruffy but game repertory company including Lola Pashalinski, an actress he dubbed Black Eyed Susan, later joined by Everett Quinton. Ludlam saw himself as the heir to virtually every theatrical tradition, and wrote a quick-change murder mystery (The Mystery of Irma Vep), a musical (Corn), a fairy tale (The Enchanted Pig), a parody of opera (Der Ring Gott Farblonjet), a religious allegory (Turds in Hell), a Moliere comedy (Le Bourgeoise Avant Garde) and even his own cockeyed version of A Christmas Carol, in which he played Scrooge. All were shot through with his R-rated, ribald, gay sensibility, that could be breathtakingly crude, intellectual and hilarious at the same time.
There’s plenty of dirt. We learn what Ludlam was thinking and doing — and whom he was sleeping with, or breaking up with — while writing the plays. We also endure his tantrums and his control-freak ways. When he had a chance to move his only musical, Corn, to Broadway, he passed, Kaufman asserts, because of the loss of control. At the same time, he harbored dreams of moving the Ridiculous Theatrical Company to Lincoln Center and becoming a mainstream institution, like the Comedie Francaise of his beloved Moliere.
Ludlam burned the candle at both ends, and in the middle, carrying on a prolific writing career while fighting and loving those around him in a classic bohemian way. He had the life that all young, ambitious theatre artists dream of having. He had too much success, too much fun, too many friends, too many lovers. He combined a uniquely twisted view of the world with boundless talent, commitment, luck and chutzpah.
Of all of those, the only one that ran out was luck. He refused to accept that he was dying of AIDS, continuing to plan a summer Central Park version of Titus Andronicus long after he was too incapacitated to leave his home. His final night on earth was as theatrical as his plays, and is still referred to by his friends as "Closing Night."
"Ridiculous!" makes a great companion volume to Harper and Row’s 1989 "The Complete Plays of Charles Ludlam" — or, more accurately, the plays are now a companion to this biography. If it had come out a decade ago, it might have helped save the Ridiculous company, which Quinton inherited and valiantly (though vainly) tried to preserve in the years after Ludlam’s death.
If this book isn’t snapped up as the subject of a movie, or, better yet, a stage musical, today’s writers should hang their heads in shame.
Who Will Buy: Ludlam fans. Would-be bohemians who want to see how it is supposed to be done. Theatre historians. Readers who love a good lurid biography.
QED by Peter Parnell (Applause)
For a few years around the turn of the twenty-first century, playwrights conceived an odd fascination with mathematicians. Michael Frayn looked at Nils Bohr in Copenhagen. David Auburn won the Pulitzer for his Proof, about a fictional mathematician and his daughter in the same business. There was even a musical, Fermat’s Last Tango, about the quest to solve Fermat’s Theorem.
And in 2001, Alan Alda appeared at Lincoln Center in a virtual solo show, QED, about physicist Richard Feynman, a Nobel-winning physicist who also apparently found time to appear in amateur stage musicals. Both author Peter Parnell and interpreter Alan Alda were fascinated with his sheer diversity. In his interesting introductory essay, "Finding Feynman," Alda writes, "What part of him do you focus on? He helped create the atomic bomb, he helped figure out why the Challenger blew up, he understood the most puzzling questions in physics so deeply they gave him the Nobel Prize. Which facet of him do you let catch the most light? The one who was a revered teacher, a bongo player, an artist, a hilarious raconteur, or a safecracker?"
Parnell’s play gives you a little of all, and lets you sort out the enigma of a brilliant and accomplished individual who never lost his wit and humanity. Worrying about his wife, his friends, visitors from Russia, his students, his performance, he pursued all with equal ferocity and joy, and the death of his beloved wife has left an obviously painful gap. QEDis not strictly a one-man show. A young female student is there to roil his emotions and memories.
Even the title is a little puzzle. It refers explicitly to a problem in Quantum Physics, and the final line in a mathematical proof: Quod Erat Demonstrandum, "as has been shown." One corner of his mind was always occupied with the musical dance of numbers. But what "has been shown" in this play is the beauty of the rest of his mind.
Who Will Buy: Feynman and Alda fans. Readers curious about the workings of the mind of a true Renaissance Man. Actors looking for unusual monologues.