Despite financial crises and the loss of its theatre, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company carries on. Charles Ludlam’s heir, Everett Quinton, has made a virtue out of reduced circumstances in this homeless phase, as seen in his solo adaptation of Phaedra. Quinton’s reworking of the classic tragedy marks a departure from the company’s familiar style. The Ridiculous built its reputation on parodies of classical works, notably Ludlam’s brilliant send-up of Camille. But Quinton’s Phaedra approaches its source in a different way. Rather than Ludlam’s manic campiness, Quinton’s Phaedra sticks closely to the original, while challenging the norms of tragic performance.
Quinton keeps the small stage of Theater for the New City nearly bare, framed by four sets of drapery wings in dark primary colors. Ancient Greece is suggested by short plaster columns standing to either side; atop each sits a styrofoam wig block head. More heads float above, evoking a chorus or audience. Popular Greek music sets the opening scene, located not in Athens but a New York Greek diner. Quinton emerges as Lilly, a gum-cracking, moussaka-slinging waitress in a mountainous wig. Lilly banters with the audience until the “entrance” of an unseen schoolboy. He is depressed because he has to read Phaedra; Lilly decides to help by enacting the play. She enlists the audience as two-part chorus, instructing one side to say “Aieee, Aieee, Aieee,” the other “Woe, Woe, Woe” on cue. Quinton then drops this admittedly labored framing device and runs offstage. In a moment he reappears wigless, bald, and draped in a flowing gown in camouflage green.
Quinton, in condensing the tragedy to forty-five minutes, draws primarily from Racine, adopting Racine’s noble tone over Euripidean irony. But he also excises most of Racine’s added characters—the raisonneurs and Hippolytus’ decorous love interest—along with the formal verse. This is a minimalist Phaedra, focused on the title character and run at breakneck pace. The speed of the action is matched by the intensity of Quinton’s acting; at the end of the hour, when Phaedra collapses lifeless, Quinton’s gown literally drips with sweat.
As with most Ridiculous plays, the script is loose. Scenes change abruptly, and characters exhibit little coherence or motivation. Quinton is more interested in raw emotion than the Racinean [End Page 245] hallmarks of logic and consistency; but then, Ridiculous performances aren’t about logic. Notably missing, however, is the Ridiculous’s central trademark: laughter. After Quinton abandons the diner, all hints of parody disappear. There is no bawdy queering of text here, as in Camille, nor does condensation generate parody, as in Stoppard’s fifteen-minute Hamlet. Only the philosophical excursions and niceties of character disappear; Quinton plays the intense emotions seriously. The result is certainly not comedy, though neither does it feel like familiar tragedy.
Similarly, it is hard to label Quinton’s performance style. His gestures are taut, broad, and slow; he dances Phaedra’s agony. Quinton clearly distinguishes the characters, but he imbues them equally with physical pain, resulting in an over-the-top intensity that borders on the ridiculous. When Ludlam performed Camille, he took his character seriously, but tears of pain intermingled with tears of laughter. In Phaedra, Quinton abandons the safety net of parody, relying only on the force of the story.
Quinton does not allow the audience to put the tragedy at a distance. The small space ensures that every spectator sees Phaedra’s contortions at close range. More importantly, Quinton continues to use the audience as chorus. Initially the cries of “Aieee” and “Woe” retain their comic sense, often accompanied by suppressed giggles. As the tragedy deepens, the choral wails become more hushed, less and less silly. Quinton, by involving the audience, asks us to reevaluate our relationship to classical tragedy. Like the invisible schoolboy in the opening scene, I approach the very idea of Racine with trepidation, and a sense of “lofty perception”: I stand back from the narrative, reading the story through the...