The subject of the very first Reader theater review—Whores of Babylon, presented by the Godzilla Rainbow Troupe—was a historically significant piece of “queer theater,” as we would say today. In 1971, we called it Theater of the Ridiculous, cosmic drag, or genderfuck. The critic, Mark Homstad, wrote under the nom de plume “J. Leland”—a coy reference to the fictional drama critic Jed Leland, played by Joseph Cotten in the classic film Citizen Kane.
When I recently reread Homstad’s review of Whores (which ran in the inaugural issue of October 1, 1971), I was disappointed and frustrated—not because the review was negative, but because it never set forth basic information about the show. Homstad either forgot or chose not to share the identities of the artists whose work he was evaluating—not the playwright, not the director, not the actors. Not even the one actor whose performance Homstad singled out for praise for his “complete control over body and voice, a poise and grace that is essential to the physical wit of the piece.”
In an article published October 13, 2011, in the Reader’s 40th-anniversary self-reflection section, Homstad wrote: “Reading my review now, after almost 40 years, I cringe at some of the sentence constructions. . . . What also strikes me is a want of tact, a missing sense of proportion that feels like an absence of restraint. Still, the piece pretty much said what I intended and it ran just as I wrote it, probably because I finished so close to deadline—hurriedly handing off the last of the freshly typed pages to [then-publisher] Bob Roth in a late Monday night pickup at my apartment—that there simply wasn’t time to edit it.” If I had been his editor, I would have told Homstad that his problem wasn’t “want of tact,” it was want of fact.
Whores of Babylon, by Bill Vehr, received its Chicago premiere under the direction of Gary Tucker, who went by the numerological name Eleven. Both Tucker and Vehr had been early members of the fabled Ridiculous Theatrical Company, whose founder, director-playwright-actor Charles Ludlam, staged the off-off-Broadway production of Whores with Tucker and Vehr in the cast. In 1971, at the suggestion of actor-stage manager Tom Biscotto, Tucker moved to Chicago with the mission of bringing Theater of the Ridiculous to Chicago. “He was drawn by the excitement of a city exploding with theatrical exuberance—everything was just starting to ignite, and he wanted to be part of that,” recalls Tucker’s sister, Holly Siegel, the wife and manager of Chicago musician Corky Siegel.
Theater of the Ridiculous was a genre of post-absurdist queer theater that briefly but brightly flamed in the 1960s and ’70s. Its hallmarks included cross-gender casting and the casting of nonprofessional “street celebrities,” burlesque parody of both popular and “high” culture, and plentiful use of improvisation that sometimes reached chaotic extremes. It both influenced and was influenced by the underground films of Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, and, later, John Waters, serving as an anarchic alternative to the more realistic 1960s “gay theater” movement that achieved commercial crossover success with The Boys in the Band in 1968.
Whores of Babylon was the debut production of the Godzilla Rainbow Troupe, cofounded by Tucker and Biscotto. The company went on to produce the Vehr-Ludlam Turds in Hell, a drag production of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, and a solo performance by Tucker of Lucille Fletcher’s radio thriller Sorry, Wrong Number at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Eventually Tucker left Chicago, though he returned in 1981 to direct a Goodman Theatre production of the final play by his friend Tennessee Williams, A House Not Meant to Stand.
I saw the same production of Whores of Babylon that Homstad did. I wasn’t a critic then; I was an ensemble member of the Free Theater, one of the early troupes that launched what we then called “off-Loop theater” in Chicago of the late 60s and early 70s. I remember a scruffy, freewheeling theatrical free-for-all. Most vividly, I remember the actor whose performance Homstad praised without naming the artist who delivered it. He was J. Pat Miller, making his Chicago stage debut. Miller went on to become one of Chicago’s most popular and respected actors with performances at the Goodman, Organic, Victory Gardens, and Wisdom Bridge, as well as a celebrated European tour of Waiting for Godot. Miller died in 1985 of AIDS, the same disease that also claimed the lives of Charles Ludlam, Bill Vehr, Tom Biscotto, and Gary Tucker. The Biscotto-Miller Fund began in 1985 to assist Chicago theater artists living with AIDS and other catastrophic illnesses; it continues today as Season of Concern.