Quel Drag!

New York’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company strikes out in a strangely serious direction.

There is something about very small theatrical spaces that uncomfortably accentuates an actor’s resemblance to a trained chimpanzee. In front of a sparse audience on movable chairs, an actor can seem more like a hired diversion at a party than a performer in his own house. Small spaces, in other words, impose an especially grueling version of the usual thespian test: Will the actor’s presence be forceful enough to fracture the audience’s self-consciousness and enable him to take control of the room?

This dilemma is one of the problems with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s production of Phaedra, a one-man adaptation by and starring Everett Quinton, currently playing in a small room at the Theatre for the New City in New York’s East Village. Five or six 6 feet away from the knees of the audience, Quinton spends the better part of an hour careening wildly back and forth among five different parts, maintaining his performance at a pitch of Gothic frenzy. Scarcely a moment passes when he is not shrieking, trembling, wailing, writhing, frantically waving his arms, or collapsing on the floor, only to spring to his feet again a moment later. He expels a considerable portion of his body mass in spit and sweat. The trouble is, it’s difficult to know what effect he intends, exactly, by all this hard work. So the chimpanzee effect manifests itself, and watching Quinton perform becomes a rather gruesome experience.

Unmitigated melodrama is not what you expect from a Ridiculous Theatrical Company production. Throughout its 30-year history, the group has been widely and extravagantly praised for its drag parodies of classical works and the zany plays written and performed by its late, revered founder (and Quinton’s former companion) Charles Ludlam. When Ludlam died in 1987, he was mourned as one of the most outrageous and brilliant comic fixtures of the Off-Broadway avant-garde. Ludlam was known for subtle deconstructions of the conventions of theater, rather than for simple-minded sendups. He used to instruct his actors to “treat the material in a madly farcical manner without losing the seriousness of the theme.” Since Quinton took over the company’s leadership, he has steered it along its accustomed satirical path. So this Phaedra is puzzling. It may be that it indicates a desire on Quinton’s part to strike out in a new direction. In this production, for instance, the effects of parody derive not from the drag but from the fact that an entire family crisis is being depicted by one man. Quinton may mean to hit new notes of seriousness here. If so, Phaedra reminds one of the virtues of conservatism.

The play opens with Quinton in a skirt, blouse, and towering wig, playing a tough-broad waitress in a Greek diner. He cracks a few jokes, sets the scene. Then he notices that a little-boy customer has left a book on a table. The book, of course, is Phaedra, and the boy has to study it for school. What is Phaedra? A Greek tragedy. (“Hey, that’s what I call the food in this place!”) Very well. We will all work through the play with the boy and explain it to him.

Framing narrative in place, there follows a brief interlude in which Quinton, English-pantomime style, ropes in the audience: He invites one guy up on stage to read for a bit; he divides us into two groups and sets up a Greek tragedy-chorus shouting match–“Aiee! Aiee! Aiee!” versus “Woe! Woe! Woe!” But then the confusion begins. Quinton dashes backstage, re-emerges in a toga, and spends what remains of the evening engaged in energetic, but inexplicably earnest, histrionics.

We wait for the waitress to reappear, but she never does. Quinton never so much as makes eye contact with the audience again, which is peculiar in a one-man show. We wait for some clue to connect the two halves of the performance, but one is never proffered. So for the remainder of the evening, we are left to confront, unaided, the mortifying spectacle of a grown man hurling himself around a tiny stage–his teeth shiny with saliva, his enormous red-lipsticked mouth perpetually open in a scream.

The play, which Quinton has adapted from Euripides (Hippolytus, 428 B.C.) by way of Racine (Phèdre, 1677) tells the unhappy story of Phaedra–queen of Athens, wife of Theseus–who falls in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. Phaedra declares her love and is rejected. Her nurse, worried that Hippolytus will tattle and stain her mistress’ honor, launches a pre-emptive strike and tells Theseus that it was actually Hippolytus who lusted after Phaedra. Theseus arranges for Poseidon to kill Hippolytus with a monster, whereupon Phaedra confesses all, then kills herself.

It would be easy to perform such goings-on as straightforward camp. There is no inherent reason why Greek tragedy, corny jokes, and a man in a skirt shouldn’t be blended into a perfectly serviceable theatrical performance. Woody Allen’s deftly structured (if not so funny) Mighty Aphrodite proved that it’s possible to interweave things ancient and things New York without serious aesthetic mishap. But Quinton seems to be after something more complicated than that. Camp would make the original seem great only because movingly absurd. Quinton seems to be in search of a kind of theatrical doublethink, where he is acting both the original and the parody simultaneously, and the audience can enjoy his performance on both levels at once.

This is the effect of this Phaedra, at least, but is it what Quinton’s after? It’s hard to tell. This is not altogether his fault–after all, Greek tragedy is a tricky business, difficult to perform without making either it or yourself appear a little ludicrous. And in principle, at least, a one-man version of a tragedy is an ingenious solution to this problem, because it wrenches the play out of its original context, but not in a way that compels us to laugh at it. In other words, a one-man Phaedra shares the structure of camp–it makes the original new and strange again by framing it differently–but lacks camp’s condescension.

There’s another aspect of Quinton’s version that’s interesting too, though mostly in retrospect: the fact that in his rush to the finish, Quinton barely alters his performance to distinguish among the characters he plays. In most contexts this would be a flaw, but here, the undifferentiated succession of speeches comes to have a rather pleasing effect. For in failing to articulate the particular characters of Phaedra, Quinton somehow conveys instead the sound and texture of “tragedy” in general. His histrionics become acting per se, and the play, merely a vehicle. The same applies to his costumes: a camouflage-print miniskirt, followed by a camouflage-print toga. Who knows why Quinton’s costume designer decided on this pattern, but again, the effect is intriguing. Camouflage, after all, is costume for costume’s sake. And so it helps, like Quinton’s plot-transcending acting, to transform Phaedra from a not-very-enjoyable one-man show into a kind of tableaux-vivant of Theater Herself.