Raven Theatre


Raven Theatre

I went to see The Artificial Jungle in 1986 at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York–it was the 29th play Charles Ludlam had written for his company, formed nearly 20 years earlier. As usual, Ludlam played the lead. And as usual, the cast included a man playing a woman. Ethyl Eichelberger, a strapping six-footer, played the mother of a nerdy pet-store owner (Ludlam). When she discovered how her son had been murdered, she expressed her rage by jumping straight up into the air, doing a back flip, and landing squarely on her feet. The memory of Eichelberger in his dowdy dress executing that astonishing flip still makes me laugh.

A few months later Ludlam died of AIDS. His lover, Everett Quinton, announced that he would keep the theater going, but I wondered if that would be possible. It seemed to me that Ludlam’s plays all had two essential ingredients–men dressed as women, and Charles Ludlam. One ingredient was no longer shocking, and the other was gone.

But as it turns out these ingredients are not essential after all, as Raven Theatre’s fine production of The Artificial Jungle demonstrates. In this version, directed by Steve Fedoruk, the mother is played by Esther McCormick, a (female) member of the Raven ensemble, and her son, Chester Nurdiger, is played by Chuck Spencer. His performance bears no resemblance to Ludlam’s, yet this Artificial Jungle remains a clever, engaging, and wonderfully ridiculous spoof of Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and other film noir classics.

The play takes place in the pet shop that Chester operates with the help of his mother and his wife, Roxanne, a nervous woman who is sick of handling tubifex worms, rats, and other revolting forms of life. She persuades her husband to hire someone to do the obnoxious chores, and as soon as he puts a “Help Wanted” sign in the window, in walks Zachary Slade, a hunk who instantly inflames Roxanne’s dormant sexuality. She throws herself at Zach (“Kiss me ’til I bleed,” she commands, as blood starts to spurt from their locked mouths). Then she talks him into killing Chester so they can collect the insurance money.

Everything about the play is ridiculous–the extravagant emotions, the method of murder, the comic juxtapositions Ludlam wrote into the script. (Roxanne announces that “the rats had another litter,” for example, just as Frankie Spinelli, the friendly neighborhood cop, advises Chester that “maybe it’s time you thought about raising a family.”) Though the Raven cast lack the instinct for the absurd that Ludlam had in such abundance, they still evoke plenty of laughs with The Artificial Jungle. Dressed in an orange leisure suit, Spencer effectively portrays Chester as a loud, insufferable mama’s boy. Kathy Keyes keeps the voltage turned up to properly outrageous levels to communicate Roxanne’s hysteria and desperation. Ted Kamp deftly transforms Zachary, who’s overwhelmed by guilt, from a stud into an impotent dud. Even without the back flip, McCormick effectively conveys Mother Nurdiger’s shock and rage when she finds out what happened to her son. And Robert Torchia, who bears a striking resemblance to Ludlam, overacts just enough to make Officer Spinelli ridiculous but not oppressive.

The Island, part of Raven Theatre’s “Shorties” series, is performed on the same set as The Artificial Jungle but is in every way its opposite. Ludlam’s play is all silliness and sarcasm, and The Island, by Raven’s resident playwright Allan Bates, is serious, cerebral, and rooted in the very theatrical conventions that Ludlam loved to ridicule. Yet despite Ludlam’s taste for the preposterous, he achieves a degree of dramatic tension that eludes the high-minded Bates.

At first The Island appears to be a hostage drama. A blindfolded man, played by Bill McGough, is led into an apartment by his guard. The man is a 38-year-old minister who began his confinement 11 months earlier, after delivering a sermon that aroused the ire of certain people. His wife, intimidated by the threats made against her husband, has left him, and now his relationship with their small daughter is limited to brief telephone calls.

But the minister is not a typical hostage. Without revealing the O. Henry plot twist, I can say that he is a Socratic figure suffering the consequences of speaking the truth. The truth he spoke, however, is never disclosed, and he is clearly ambivalent about the martyrdom he’s suffering as a result. He certainly dislikes being separated from his daughter, and he misses such simple pleasures as taking a walk. But at the same time he seems to crave martyrdom because it gives meaning to his existence. In his anguish, he squashes a pear against his face, to the distress of the woman who prepares his meals. Obviously the gesture is symbolic, but like so much of this play, what it stands for is not clear.

McGough gives the man a vivid personality, especially when the character is flaunting his education and his extensive travels. Patrice Fletcher and Dan Parent are appropriately inscrutable as the man’s captors–or whatever they are. If The Island remains inaccessible, the fault must lie with the playwright, who seems uncertain about how to get where he wants to go with this play.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.