Sliced Bread Productions

at Space Gallery

It would be a mistake to take anything that came out of the late Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company too seriously: Ludlam rejected the idea of seriousness, citing the Ridiculous as a keener weapon against pretensions and “certain kinds of bullshitting.” He took his Ridiculous seriously, but no one else was supposed to. Either you got it or you didn’t, you laughed or you didn’t. The Ridiculous, Ludlam maintained, frees you from conformity.

If Stage Blood, his spoof on life in the theater, seems a little standard despite all that, perhaps it’s because the life of a touring company is ridiculous. And Ludlam borrowed liberally from a number of classics to shape his script. His tale of a flamboyant company putting up its production of Hamlet not only encompasses elements of The Mousetrap and The Sea Gull, Stoppard and Pirandello, but becomes so enmeshed in the Shakespeare that it’s hard to tell where Hamlet ends and Stage Blood begins.

The script describes the plight of Carlton Stone Jr., actor and manager of the Caucasian Theater Company, who finds that his offstage life is uncannily paralleling that of the Prince of Denmark, whom he happens to be playing at the time. Carlton’s father mysteriously dies, his mother (who’s playing Gertrude) is embroiled in a naughty affair with the actor playing Claudius, and Carlton finds himself (for various complicated reasons) jerking the chain of the actress playing Ophelia. Poring over the (glow-in-the-dark) skull of an old departed actor, Carlton tells his stage manager, “You wouldn’t know it to look at him now, but he had quite a sense of humor.” Far from shying away from theatrical cliches, Ludlam indulges them to the dizzy limit; the familiar becomes the outrageous, and the result is good farce.

Directed by Wm. Bullion, who also plays the beleaguered Carlton Stone Jr., this Sliced Bread production plays fast and loose with Ludlam’s script, wincing along with the audience at his weaker moments, running roughshod with him over theatrical tradition and throwing naturalism to the wind. This approach creates a more compelling reality, in which actors react honestly to whatever is actually happening onstage. At the performance I attended one actor accidentally broke the arm of a chair, strode out into the audience, and handed it to the stage manager, who sat at the back of the house. No attempt is made to erect a fourth wall: the actors unself-consciously acknowledge the audience (often as a necessary evil) and go about their business–in effect, behaving ridiculously.

This they do. Jill Gleeson, as the ingenue, auditions for the part of Ophelia with a mad scene that is absolutely aces; every actress’s self-indulgent dream of what she might do with that part is realized in Gleeson’s glazed eye, trembling lip, and berserk delivery. Only a top-notch actress could conceive a performance so rivetingly bad.

Noel Olken has smarm to spare as Edmund Dundreary, the ambitious second banana who’s plotting to take over both the company and Helga Vain, the wife of aging thespian Carlton Stone Sr. (an able Kevin Wade in the most difficult role). Olken goes beyond the call of duty when he bares his buns to receive several eye-watering smacks from a leather belt, wielded by sometime-dominatrix Helga (Ben Ziola).

To say that Ludlam was fond of drag is an understatement, but unlike most of his other shows, the original production of Stage Blood featured none. This production offers Helga/Gertrude as a drag queen, modeled conspicuously after Tallulah Bankhead–Ziola’s throaty performance is inspired, perhaps at its best when Helga, watching her son perform an “experimental” piece of theater for her benefit, slips effortlessly into Madame Arkadina from The Sea Gull. Another fine comic performance comes from Roberto Argentina as James Jenkins–a vaguely German, discontented stage manager more interested in hawking his 1,300-page experimental play than in tending to the current production.

As Carlton Stone Jr., Wm. Bullion establishes early a sly, chummy rapport with the audience, and his comic timing is admirable. In his hands, however, the one or two serious scenes from Hamlet that Ludlam has layered into his manic comedy never quite take off–Bullion’s confidence and flair don’t seem to help him with Hamlet’s soliloquy.

The press release calls Stage Blood a “biting send-up on life in the arts.” I was inclined to think of it less as “biting” and more as a thoroughly enjoyable and sometimes hysterically funny mauling–it’s at its best when the cast is chewing the scenery.