Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Deliciously Wretched Excess

Some people seem to tiptoe through life, forever terrified of overstepping the fearsome boundaries which they've been told constitute the lower limits of "good taste." Others are delighted to shock, confront and generally make trouble. Basing their actions on the philosophy that if something offends an audience the audience must need to be offended, these folks are usually hailed for their artistic daring at the exact same time they are being condemned for seeming too confrontational or merely acting "rude."

Having had a life-long fascination with those things which can be deemed as truly tasteless, I'm always amused to see what happens when the so-called "Establishment" realizes that something which was once scorned for its basic crudeness has suddenly become fashionable. In an about-face of epic proportions, the media proclaims the item as "hot," and sends the masses out shopping for it with a frenzy not unlike the religious fervor of born-again Christians.

In the process, the product in question inevitably gets refined, trash becomes respectable, new markets are generated and the combined effects of media hype and gentrification push what was once a raw and uncultivated talent headlong down the road to commercial success. While its craftsmanship is rarely diminished, the raw talent's ability to shock soon evaporates into thin air. If you don't believe me, just look at what happened to Madonna and the Beatles.

Looking back, I recall how condescendingly the public treated such items as Joan Rivers, black leather, and Perrier when they were first becoming known. Now, of course, these commodities are not only inescapable, they seem to have achieved some kind of sanctified status within our society. The wildest artistic souls, however, are not as easily compromised by the commercial demands of their newly-acquired popularity. As a result, I'm delighted to report on two productions which spared no evil and missed no chance at indulging their audiences in wretched excess. Both evenings were filled with a wonderfully wicked sense of humor and, I might add, conceived by artists who are blessed with absolutely brilliant imaginations. As far as I'm concerned, Charles Ludlam and Gerald Scarfe are men whose wit usually goes far beyond the public's ability to fully comprehend and appreciate what they have placed on display.


Few fake fish have ever gotten away with as many laughs as the tiger-striped piranhas which play a crucial role in the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's production of The Artificial Jungle. Charles Ludlam's latest offering (which spoofs such movie classics as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice) may not be as hysterically funny as some of his other creations, but Ludlam certainly knows the genre inside-out and treats it with masterful respect.

Despite superbly low-life performances by Black-Eyed Susan as Roxanne Nurdiger and Everett Quinton as Zachary Slade, this time it was Ethyl Eichelberger rather than Mr. Ludlam, who walked off with the show. Portraying a possessive mother who (after learning that her darling son had been done in by her daughter-in-law and the girl's new lover) has been silenced and partially paralyzed by a stroke, Eichelberger's desperate attempt to reveal their foul play to a visiting police officer constituted a silent monologue of epic proportions. In a symphony of sweaty, spastoneurotic gestures which were accompanied by a feverish frenzy of facile facial expressions, Eichelberger delivered a theatrical tour de force so brilliant that, as far as I'm concerned, his performance deserves to be videotaped and put on display in the Smithsonian Institution.

Jack Kelly's unit set was a masterpiece of day-glo camp and the direction, by Mr. Ludlam, was right on target. If The Artificial Jungle lacked a certain amount of punch, it is partially because of its need for so much lengthy exposition. However, although Mr. Ludlam's character was murdered before the end of Act I, I can assure you that, in its absence, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's plastic piranhas -- whose talent and appetites seem insatiable -- kept the audience in stitches.


Gerald Scarfe's sets and costumes for Orpheus in the Underworld earn top honors for contributing to the most brazenly enjoyable evening of operetta I've attended in a long, long time. Scarfe (for those unfamiliar with his work) is the naughty Englishman whose tasteless cartoons include such "politically correct" spectacles as Margaret Thatcher giving Ronald Reagan a blow job.

A rabid iconoclast with a bizarre imagination, Scarfe's treatment of Offenbach's lusty operetta premiered at the English National Opera before being presented last fall by both Michigan Opera Theatre and the Houston Grand Opera. Although it is due to be seen in Los Angeles in 1988, I find it hard to believe that the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Association could match the phenomenally talented cast which romped across the stage of Houston's Jones Hall last month.

This perversely pulchritudinous production (which includes such insane sights as a chorus of dancing bumble bees and a ripe rump shitting out a string of coffins) bristled with comic genius. As Eurydice, tiny Tracy Dahl (who is scheduled to sing Olympia in the San Francisco Opera's Tales of Hoffman next fall) had just the right combination of baby-faced innocence, half-pint naughtiness and sound coloratura technique to underline her potent operatic talents. In those few moments when he wasn't turning somersaults, performing the Can-Can or belting out high D's with phenomenal strength, tenor Carroll Freeman's Aristaeus and Pluto became the personifications of slimy sensuality; two wonderfully droll characterizations.

Thanks to the sheer energy of Peter Mark Schifter's wacky stage direction, Robert Orth's lustful Jupiter (especially when disguised as a free-flying bumble bee) was a farcical gem. So, for that matter, was Susan Larson's Venus -- the dumbest of dumb blondes. Lewis J. Stadlen's drag appearance as Public Opinion, Bill Livingston's Orpheus and Sheila Smith's Diana all added to the evening's fun. However, three performances deserve special mention. Joel Blum's tap-dancing Mercury was an easy audience favorite while Douglas Perry's submissively black-laced and frequently whipped John Styx (scantily clad in the most humiliating Frederick's of Hollywood fashions) offered some delicious moments of sexual camp. Soprano Eirian James' portrayal of Cupid struck me as a particularly fascinating musical comedy turn.

Needless to say, a good time was had by all those onstage and in the audience, too. My date described the evening to his friends as "the kind of opera for people who don't like to go to opera." Hell and damnation -- even for those of us who DO like to attend the opera, HGO's production of Orpheus in the Underworld was a rare and sorely-needed treat. A few more evenings filled with this kind of "bad taste" could make the world a better place to live in!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 29, 1987.

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