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Charles Ludlam's Camille Returns to Its Downtown Roots

Director John V.N. Philip revives this Ridiculous play in the most appropriate of spaces: the basement bar of Orchard Street's Casa Mezcal. logo

Things are about to get ridiculous on Manhattan's Lower East Side. A new revival of Charles Ludlam's Camille will play downtown bar and art space Casa Mezcal from January 27 through February 25. While Director John V.N. Philip and his troupe of actors have added their own spin on the play, he insists that they've remained true to the essence of Ludlam's vision.

The author of twenty-nine plays, Ludlam is best known as the founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which hilariously took aim at the pillars of society and culture from 1967 - 1997, often featuring cross-dressing actors and outrageous physical comedy. Ludlam wrote the best parts for himself, so naturally he played the leading role of Marguerite Gautier in the original 1973 production.

The story of Marguerite Gautier, the French courtesan torn between love and survival, and dying of tuberculosis, has captivated audiences and readers alike since she first appeared in Alexandre Dumas, fils' 1848 novel La Dame Aux Camélias. The story became an opera (La Traviata), a popular stage play starring the likes of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse—various adaptations have been performed a total of sixteen times on Broadway—and a 1936 film starring Greta Garbo. Clearly, this story was just begging to be a drag show, at least in Ludlam's mind.

Over the course of the 1970s, Ludlam played Marguerite in his own subversive way hundreds of times. His Marguerite wore a low cut dress that exposed a full and bushy chest of hair. "I didn't want to engage in the kind of trickery that would make people think I was a real woman and then suddenly unmask at the end. I wanted to lure them into gradually forgetting," Ludlam told The New Yorker in 1976, and usually, they did forget.

Philip first experienced Camille in 1990 at the Charles Ludlam Theater in Sheridan Square (now the Axis Theatre), with Ludlam's lover in the title role. "I will confess; in watching Everett Quinton, I was seduced," he says. But he also admits that his production will take a slightly different tack: "We're not trying to create just the one character surrounded by all of the lesser characters, who lead to that very seduction. Rather, we point out that these are stars in a constellation. They're little points of light that illuminate the star, but hold their own."

While the approach might be slightly different from the original, Philip's choice of venue is pure early Ridiculous Theatrical Company. "I was astonished by the [Lower East Side] neighborhood, which made me think of the village in the 70s," recalls Philip of the day he first stumbled upon Casa Mezcal's downstairs bar Obra Negra, a cozy theater space/cocktail lounge that regularly plays host to live music and burlesque shows. The decor is reminiscent of a Sixteenth Century Mexican Jesuit torture chamber. Flickering candles adorn each table. A fully-stocked bar faces the stage from the opposite end of the room. A large alligator skin hangs on the wall, its mouth agape. "It's one of the most, incredible little jewel boxes of a theater I have ever seen in New York." He adds, "I really believe Ludlam's spirit was up there guiding us."

He's not off-base in saying that. Ludlam performed his earliest hit, Bluebeard, at a West Village gay bar called Christopher's End in 1970, less than a year after the Stonewall Inn was raided on the very same street. "It was a hard time, but it was an artistic renaissance. It was a time when, underneath all the troubles, there was a tremendous spirit of freedom. I think it was tied very much to the evolution of the civil rights movement and the real blossoming of the gay rights movement, post Stonewall," says Philip.

Clearly, the story of Marguerite Gautier resonated with the downtown (and disproportionately gay) audiences that frequented the Ridiculous in the 1970s—since it was a surefire box office hit, Camille was one of the Ridiculous' most-revived plays—but will this revival of the tale of a hooker with a heart of gold living in a world of bourgeois excess and bohemian liberation resonate with today's downtown audiences? Philip certainly thinks so: "I think, we are once again in a time of troubles, but underneath all, we are once again tapping into some of our own feelings about freedom that were first unleashed on this society in the 70s. And which, in a sense had a great setback after those years."

He reflects further, "Liberalism is beginning to find its way back. By liberalism, I don't necessarily mean political liberalism, but social liberalism, a real understanding of people living in unorthodox ways. Ludlam was such an avatar of that."

Indeed, it may be on the east side of town, and it may cater to a slightly different crowd, and the drinks may be, oh…$8 more expensive than they were in 1970, but Philip is certain that the spirit of the Ridiculous will come to inhabit Casa Mezcal, just as it inhabited the West Village so many years ago.

For tickets to Camille, click here.