Friday, July 4, 2008

The Dramatic Impact of the Ridiculous

I do not think I have ever given a Chutzpah of the Week award based on an "Arts Page" story. However, since I am always on the lookout for opportunities to point out positive connotations of chutzpah, I would like to assign this week's award to Chloe Veltman, principal Stage reviewer for SF Weekly; and, while her action may have been local, its implications are considerably more far-reaching. The basis for the award was her decision to publish a review of the San Francisco Opera production of Lucia di Lammermoor in the same column that also reviewed the local Thrillpeddlers production of Charles Busch's play, Theodora: She-Bitch of Byzantium. Her primary reason for this coupling was "that these two wildly different theatrical experiences have quite a bit in common – including a shared journey from the ridiculous to the sublime." Now my guess is that, while Thrillpeddlers will enjoy this approach to coverage, Veltman will probably raise quite a few hackles among the opera lovers, particularly those so glad that Natalie Dessay finally came to San Francisco; and that is where the chutzpah resides. However, now that I have given her the award willingly and cheerfully, I have to say that I am not sure I entirely agree with her reasoning.

First of all, to set the record straight, I have never seen any of the Thrillpeddlers productions. I have seen Busch himself, but only once in a revival of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. On the other hand I managed to spend a fair amount of my time in Manhattan building up a healthy base of experience around what could be called the "New York Ridiculous" movement. This began with my first trip to the Playhouse of the Ridiculous to see John Vaccaro's Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit; but it tended to focus on Charles Ludlam's spin-off troupe, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Looking back on those years, I would now be so bold as to say that any history of opera in the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century that ignored Ludlam would be seriously negligent.

Ludlam's contribution, however, had less to do with the relation between the ridiculous and the sublime and more to do with the power of the ridiculous to disclose tragedies of the human heart that the sublime sometimes fails to reach. This was most evident in his "flagrantly unauthorized" biography of Maria Callas, Galas. (Prior to this Ludlam had already taken on the opera world with a major act of chutzpah, collapsing the entirety of Richard Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen cycle into a single evening of Yiddish Theater entitled Der Ring Gott Farblonjet.) Galas is, without a doubt, an experience of the ridiculous; but it is also a far more penetrating examination of the trials of Callas' life than the one that emerged from Terrence McNally's more serious effort, Master Class. For my money this cuts to the heart of how the "ridiculous" spirit informs how we can watch an opera like Lucia, since, if it is really "all about the diva," as I had argued, then Ludlam reveals more about "the diva" than we may ever want to know. Furthermore, because when this work was first performed, he was "the diva," he was also the portal through which we made the journey from the ridiculous to the profound (rather than the sublime). (My wife used to say, "Charles can walk across the stage in heels better than any woman, with the possible exception of Bette Midler!")

Ludlam's primary instrument of the ridiculous was his capacity to throw the all-too-familiar in a new light. Thus, while Galas is "all about the diva," he cast it as a two-act play (one act for "the rise" and one for "the decline") in which each act is based on a separate literary source. The "rise" is presented in the framework of Rebecca, where Mrs. Danvers is transformed into Bruna Lina Rasta, a "mad soprano" who becomes Galas' personal maid and comes out with no end of gems of wisdom, my favorite being, "You only have so many Normas and each one is numbered. Make each one count." When we shift acts from "rise" to "decline," however, Ludlam exchanges Daphne du Maurier for Euripides' play Medea, setting the act on the luxury yacht of Aristotle Plato Socrates Odysseus; and Bruna becomes the Chorus. For all the ridiculous moments that "season" this act, Ludlam is as serious about his tragic view of Callas as Euripides was about his view of Medea.

Ludlam would have been in his element staging opera. Unfortunately, he had only one opportunity to do this towards the end of this life, when, in Santa Fe, he staged one of the best Fledermaus productions I ever saw. My great regret, however, is that he never had the opportunity to apply his keen sense of the ridiculous (which was right at home in Fledermaus) to a bel canto opera like Lucia, where it could have done a world of good. It is not as if the story would have been compromised, particularly if we consider all the ways in which librettist Salavadore Cammarano compromised Walter Scott's source material. Furthermore, as I have already suggested, Gaetano Donizetti was just not as interested in achieving an effective "fit" between music and narrative the way composers like George Frideric Handel and Wagner were. Ludlam could have used his innate command of the ridiculous to turn a liability into an asset, which I read as one of the underlying principles in the "manifesto" he wrote, which was published at the beginning of The Complete Plays of Charles Ludlam.

In other words it is not a question of whether or not the ridiculous elements of Lucia ultimately transport us to the sublime. A mad scene does not succeed by being sublime; it succeeds by being profound and compelling you to its very depths. Had the ridiculous been better directed by a master like Ludlam, the profound would have been just as strong and the time we spent waiting for it would have been more worthwhile.

No comments: