Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde
Sliced Bread Productions
at the Acme Theater
By Justin Hayford
As a struggling New York theater artist in the mid-60s, Charles Ludlam regularly attended low-priced Wednesday-matinee performances of Broadway shows–gathering material for future evisceration. One day a friend offered to buy him a front-row seat if he would show up at the theater in drag. Ludlam arrived at the appointed hour in a tasteful frock and pearls, his beard neatly trimmed, and sauntered gracefully down the aisle, a ludicrous parody of the typical matinee audience member. He sat quietly through the performance, chin poised atop a demurely extended finger, while the cast stole astonished glances at him. The play was called Conduct Unbecoming.
Ludlam surely took the scowling or surprised faces surrounding him that day as badges of honor. It took enormous courage back then for a longhaired nobody to defy middle-class heterosexist norms. Only a few years before Ludlam’s star appearance at Conduct Unbecoming, the New York State Supreme Court had upheld a ruling that branded as “offensive and indecent” the behavior of gay men who wore tight pants, walked with swaying hips, or gestured with limp wrists (the court was supporting a decision that shut down a gay bar). But unlike many of his contemporaries in the theater, Ludlam openly proclaimed his queerness and rallied to the defense of the offensive and indecent–not to mention the cheap, the tasteless, the melodramatic, and the tawdry. Founding the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967, a New York ensemble he kept together for two decades, he undertook what he called the “rigorous revaluing of everything.” In one of many essays on the theater, he wrote that “admiring what people hold in contempt, holding in contempt things other people think are so valuable–it’s a fantastic standard.”
By the time of his death in 1987, Ludlam had written 29 high-octane satires of American political, social, and sexual life, populating them with all manner of freaks, maniacs, and ne’er-do-wells. But for all his radicalism, Ludlam was at heart a theatrical traditionalist. He expressed little but contempt for the self-proclaimed avant-garde, dismissing their work as needlessly obscure. “The avant-garde is wrong and the audience is right,” he wrote. “The audience is supposed to know what is going on. If artists fail to communicate, it’s their fault, not the audience’s.” He traced his own lineage back to Aristophanes, arguably the first great Western satirist, and drew upon the traditions of commedia dell’arte and 17th-century French farce. As he told the New York Times in 1983, “All I’m doing down here is working within a comic tradition using character types that have been around for centuries. I’m just trying to make them live again in a way that’s funny and thought-provoking.”
That same year Ludlam wrote Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde, a play combining his personal dislike of the avant-garde with the usual elements of Ridiculosity. It proved a great commercial success. Based on Moliere’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, about a middle-class merchant determined to pass himself off as the crustiest of the upper crust, Ludlam’s play was set in contemporary Long Island and ridiculed not only the purposely incomprehensible poseurs who fancy themselves visionary artists but their nouveau riche patrons. The play centers on Rufus Foufas, a filthy rich greengrocer who throws money at a clique of talent-free dilettantes and their director, Percival Hack. While they proclaim their every burp and fart to be avant-garde, Foufas apes their meticulously unfashionable clothing and gibberish-heavy artspeak as his family looks on in bemused horror.
Trouble brews when Foufas’s straight-and-narrow daughter, Prue, falls for the boy next door, bank clerk Newton Entwhistle. Foufas forbids such a bourgeois union, insisting his daughter marry a revolutionary artist of some sort. Enter Nicky Newfangle, champion of “repressed expressionism,” an artist so far ahead of his time he’s termed “post-talent.” Foufas is too stupid to recognize Entwhistle under Newfangle’s cheap disguise, and finally an elaborate initiation ritual into Newfangle’s “avant-derriere” movement reveals Foufas to be an utter fool and enables his daughter to marry her oh-so-conventional sweetheart.
It’s easy to see why Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde was a success. The satire is giddy and playful, a breath of fresh air at a time when the New York performance scene was saturated with humorless artistes intent on claiming every mundane act and bodily function as high art. As in all his plays, Ludlam shows that tradition is something to build upon, not spurn, in an effort to understand the contemporary moment. Combining classical farce, cheap vaudeville, and jokes in exquisite bad taste, he brought ferocious ridicule down upon the heads of anyone within spitting distance of the art world.
Sliced Bread’s production may someday do the same, but on opening weekend the actors were so ill prepared that they barely made it to the final curtain. Director William Bullion may have spread himself too thin by casting himself as the lead. And too often his ten cast members stumble over or drop their lines, exhibiting the kind of hesitancy that quickly saps Ludlam’s romp of the exuberance it needs.
With the exceptions of Matthew Welton as the Composer, Wes Bailey as Mrs. Foufas (the only character played in drag), and the remarkable Kila Kitu as Polish avant-garde actress Maia Panzaroff, the actors seem to have been forced into farce against their will. Though they adopt all the right mannerisms–manic stares, sudden shifts in affect, broad takes to the audience–these seem largely mechanical, and their caricatures never become human. All the actorly effort is unmistakable–and at times exhausting–to the viewer, but it’s generally too much without ever being enough. As a result, Ludlam’s sprightly comedy tends to lumber, and nothing akin to a tone or style begins to coalesce.
Satire is a dangerous business: you have to be quite accomplished yourself before you start ridiculing others. And actors who haven’t got their lines down by their third performance are in no position to make fun of anyone else.