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Conquest of the Universe Or When Queens Collide

The 50th anniversary revival of Ludlam’s first epic play is a gift of mayhem controlled, directed with a loving reverence by his life-long partner Everett Quinton.

Shane Baker, Jeanne Lauren Smith, Everett Quinton, Lenys Samá and Géraldine Dulex in a scene from “Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide” (Photo credit: Theo Cote)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

The second of the 29 plays by Charles Ludlam, Conquest of the Universe is enjoying a 50th anniversary production at La MaMa E.T.C., as directed with a loving reverence by Ludlam’s life-long partner Everett Quinton. It is also one of his first four, so-called “epic” plays, sprawling and you might say, unhinged or “out of joint.” The reference to Shakespeare is quite deliberate, since Ludlam himself incorporated references to the Bard–not to mention seemingly every other playwright from every period and from pop culture as well. One of the characters even speaks in Chaucerian Middle English, as adapted by Ludlam.

Conquest… is also significant since it marks the birth of Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, when, during rehearsals of the play as directed by John Vaccaro, Ludlam and five other actors stormed out and formed their own company. Since Vaccaro still controlled the rights to putting on the play (and he did), Ludlam was reduced to staging it under a different name: hence, its alternate title, When Queens Collide, which itself referred to the feud between Ludlam and Vaccaro.

Everett Quinton in a scene from “Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide” (Photo credit: Theo Cote)

Based primarily on Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, Ludlam’s version recasts the real-life Mongolian conqueror as Tamberlaine (Grant Neale), President of Earth, determined to take over the universe, beginning with Bajazeth (Lenys Samá), King of Mars, and his wife Zabina (Quinton).

In lieu of the anarchy of the original production, Quinton’s staging presents a knowing and controlled performance, giving a semblance of sanity to the retelling as Tamberlaine proceeds to take over the Queen of Venus (Géraldine Dulex), Magnavox, King of Mercury (eugene the poogene), Ortygius, Caliph of Jupiter (John Gutierrez), and Natolia, Queen of Saturn (Beth Dodye Bass). (It’s Natolia who speaks Chaucerian English, saying, for example, “Hadde loved hire best of any creature two yeer and moore, as was his aventure.”)

Still more characters–and actors–fill the vast black-box stage space of La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, with large colored orbs or planets hanging above, and Saturn projected on a rear screen, which will come to house many more images. The set designer is Robert Savina, with set decoration by Kevin Fernandez, and the video projections are by Jerry Marsini.

Shane Baker and Everett Quinton in a scene from “Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide” (Photo credit: Theo Cote)

But it’s the costumes, lavishly designed by Ramona Ponce, that frequently take your breath away. As do many of the bawdy scenes, such as when, in the second scene, Venus engages in cunnilingus with Zabina’s brother Cosroe (also played by Quinton) even as she’s being sodomized by Magnavox and receives still more interplanetary travellers in her room.

Played to perfection with an infectious joy by one and all, the entire cast also takes a deadly serious attitude towards their lines and their actions. Indeed Ludlam’s Conquest invokes Hamlet in its final scene, when many of the characters die–even following a previous “gravedigger” scene. And as staged by Quinton, the final “banquet” scene also invokes Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” All I can say is, go and enjoy!

Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide (through November 19, 2017)

La MaMa E.T.C.’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.lamama.org

Running time: one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission

David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (44 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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