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A CurtainUp Review
Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide

Before the cock crows thrice: one of you will betray me. — Tamberlaine
Shane Baker and Everett Quinton photo credit: Theo Cote
There probably isn't a more apt or more specifically off-the-wall example of absurdist theater American style than is Charles Ludlam's Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide which began its outer space-d life at La Mama in 1967. This new budget-be-damned production celebrates the classic play's fiftieth anniversary and as such should attract those who wish to commemorate its genesis. Unsuspecting others inclined to experience for the first time Ludlam's world of flesh and fantasy are hereby forewarned. This is not to say that The Experimental Theatre Club has not done its work with a sense of largesse and love.

The pre-show treat that awaits audiences as they enter the theater's auditorium is commendably awesome. An entire universe has been created utilizing all of the deep space (in every sense) of the playing area (I suspect much larger in area than any Broadway theater). Above us, radiantly colorful orbs of various sizes representing all the planets in our galaxy are aglow and hanging in their respective orbits. Below are clusters of set pieces that serve as various locations and are atmospherically enhanced by lighting designer Christopher Weston.

If the play, as directed by and now starring in two roles Ludlam's long-time partner/playwright Everett Quinton, is not quite the shocking marvel of audacious camp it was during its own time, it gives audiences a spectacular peak at a genre and a performance style (from the I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know-that-you-know school of acting) that peaked and eventually paled in the face of an evolving theater scene that has generally become less broadly facetious.

A large cast, men playing women, women playing men and in multiple roles is whimsically costumed by Ramona Ponce to delight one and all fans of grade Z outer-space movies and comic books. The story they have to enact is one for the books or rather archives.

Anyone who attended any of Ludlam's ground-breaking epics at The Ridiculous Theatrical Company or plays by his equally camp-intoxicated disciple Quinton, know that subtlety is not in their melodramatic vocabulary. The plot that informs this grandly scaled travesty about Tamberlaine the King of Earth and his plan to conquer the Universe is hardly one to inspire much comment.

Viewers are offered a heaping helping of life's more creative sexual proclivities and to the dangers in store for those who dare to indulge. As we already know, Tamberlaine (Grant Neale) was not an especially nice guy and his subsequent sexploits (don't invite Aunt Sadie) confirm this. Let's just say that his encounters with the more anal receptive Kings and Queens of outer space provide most of the action, as augmented with some heinous murders and comical derring-do with toy store swords, sabers and knives.

The text is mostly bits and pieces taken from Shakespeare and Marlowe, TV commercials, old trashy movies, the bible, political rants and cliché-riddled rhetoric by famous world leaders. The point that power and sex drives the universe is made loud and clear. some of this is indeed very funny.

Quinton, who is playing both Zabina, Queen of Mars and her brother Cosroe gets his laughs and has the best command of the style; as does the brawny Grant Neale as the brutal Tamberlaine; Brian Belovitch as Alice, First lady of Earth. Geraldine Dulex as the Queen of Venus and Beth Dodye Bass as the Queen of Saturn bring the obligatory other-worldly resonance to their sexy shtick, sometimes to song. Dulex gets the solo spot for "He's the Conqueror" with unforgettable lyrics — "He takes what he wants, And if you're what he wants, he takes you. He knows what he wants, and if you're not what he wants, he doesn't take you, He's the Conqueror."

It isn't too much of a stretch to see political relevancy as Tamb3rlaine has his way with the various kings and queens of outer space. However, sometimes it's hard to know exactly who is doing what to whom and where.

Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide may be defined best as politicized soft-porn with a wink. I suspect that Ludlam's irrepressibly ridiculous play will likely continue to orbit in the outer limits of dramatic literature long after others in the genre have faded away.

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Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide By Charles Ludlam Directed by Everett Quinton

Cast: Grant Neale (Tamberlain), Lenys Sama (Bajazeth, King of Mars), Brian Belovitch (First Lady of Earth), Everett Quinton (Zabina, Queen of Mars, Cosroe, brother of Zabina, a Martain prince), Jeanne Lauren Smith (Ebea, her maid), Shane Baker (Techellus, grave digger), Sommer Carbuccia (Usumcasane, Witch of Ensor, War), Geraldine Dulex (Venus, Queen of Venus, Firewoman), eugene the poogene (Magnavox, King of Mercury, Pestilence, Firewoman), John Gutierrez (Ortygius, Caliph of Jupiter, Hunger, Newsboy, Ballerina of Uranus, Firewoman), Beth Dodye Bass (Natolia, Queen of Saturn, Woman in a Cell), Jillian A. Goldstein (Firewoman)
Song "He's the Conqueror" composed by Peter Golub
Arrangement of Original Music by Sean Carmichael
Costume Design: Ramona Ponce
Set Design: Robert Savina
Lighting Design: Christopher Weston
sound Design: Tim Schellenbaum
Props Design: Cricket Epstein
Stage Manager: Karen Oughtred
Video Projections: Jerry Marsini
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes no intermission
The Ellen Stewart Theater at La Mama, 66 E. 4th St. N.Y.C.
Tickets: $30/$25 students and seniors
Performances: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 4 pm.
From 11/02/17 Opened 11/06/17 Ends 11/19/17
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 11/05/17

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