The Tragic and The Camp
by Anthony Chase
Theater critics take greater risks in liking things than in despising them. A clever putdown always puts the speaker on higher ground, establishing his or her taste as more exquisitely refined—and comedy, with its lowbrow origins, provides the easiest of all targets. There are pitfalls to dismissing comedy too quickly, however, for in doing so, a critic can appear irrelevant or even just plain stupid.
The BUA production of The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun reminds us just how perplexing comedy can be for critics. The safe road is to withhold enthusiasm and retreat to the staid sophistication of more sobering intellectual fare. George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) predicted that Noel Coward would be entirely forgotten beside the genius of Clyde Fitch. William Winter (1836-1917) complained that the theater of his day had become “a theatrical display of mental obliquity and physical disease in comparison with which the gross, rubicund, libidinous, and monstrous [comedies] of the restoration are innocence itself,” thereby ensuring that, despite a distinguished career as Broadway’s foremost critic, he would be remembered only as the iconic prude of a prudish era.
Frank Rich of the New York Times, on the other hand, took a big chance when he championed the work of Charles Ludlam, whose Ridiculous Theatrical Company is the grandparent of all camp drag comedy that has happened since. While conceding that the acting was sometimes broad and that the sets were often haphazard and tossed together, Rich would still go on to proclaim: “There are two types of theatergoers in New York: Those who have seen Charles Ludlam and those who have not. Those who have seen him may have strong feelings pro or con about the master of the Ridiculous, but first it’s essential to take the plunge.”
Rich recognized that sometimes the sublime is to be found in the ridiculous. He championed Ludlam as “a valiant theatrical renaissance man who has stubbornly pursued an idiosyncratic artistic vision for nearly 20 years.”
Stubborn is the word, for companies like Ridiculous Theatrical Company or BUA do not actually care what critics think of them. Not at all. In fact, I suspect that they tolerate critics as a fact of their existence, but view us as somewhat clueless, certainly irrelevant to their work, and frankly a bit of a distraction. You will never see a pull-quote from even the most glorious review in an ad for a BUA show. They speak directly to their audiences. And those audiences are famously thirsty for the product they deliver, replete with its wigs, bits of nudity, double-entendres, and bold critiques of contemporary life.
The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun would certainly be a case in point for a company whose stock and trade is a theatrical display of mental obliquity in comparison with which the gross, rubicund, libidinous, and monstrous plays of the restoration are innocence itself. BUA clearly abhors the sort of innocence that would censor and sanitize the life story of Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers, the real life singing nun, whose rise to fame with the pop hit “Dominique” took her to the top of the charts and onto The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, but whose subsequent lesbian awakening, departure from the convent, financial ordeals, effort to revive her career with a recording about birth control and a disco version of “Dominique,” and suicide played out mostly outside the public view.
With its loyal following, BUA is also among the only companies in Buffalo whose principle actors are “stars.” Jimmy Janowski (who plays the singing nun), like Lorna C. Hill at Ujima or David Lamb at the Kavinoky, can inspire entrance applause. Other actors in the troupe can as well—consider their zoftig Salome, Kerrykate Abel. Consider perennial leading lady Caitlin Coleman or character actor Eric Rawski. When Lisa Ludwig appears with the company (as she did as Sylvia in the reading of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women that I directed) she arguably receives a more riotous reception than on any other stage.
With BUA finally ensconced (again) in a more or less permanent home at 119 Chippewa Street, we can expect a more steady diet of iconoclasm. Take the plunge.
Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v8n33 (week of Thursday, August 12, 2009) > Theaterweek > The Tragic and The Camp
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