Performance diary: THE HIDDEN SKY and the Charles Ludlam films

February 23, 2010

February 20 – Some friends of Andy’s, writer-director Kate Chisholm and composer-lyricist Peter Foley, have spent the last few years developing a musical called The Hidden Sky, based on Ursula LeGuin’s short story, “The Masters.” It’s currently having a production at the Prospect Theater Company, so we went to have a look. It’s truly Off-Off-Broadway: performed in a disused church, minimal production values, amateur actors, minimal orchestration (two live musicians, everything else on tape), terrible sound, etc. And wouldn’t you know, the woman playing the lead was out sick, so another member of the cast was stepping in, with book in hand. But the musical values were respectable – the choral arrangements (by Foley) were especially lovely, and most of the cast had pretty good voices.

The main draw is the story, set in “a time other than now” but very much about now nevertheless. (It could be taking place in Afghanistan, or Iran, or Iraq, or Albany — any place where religious fanatics are trying to bring back the Stone Age.) The world is dominated by a highly religious culture that worships the sun as God…only the environment has been destroyed so God has not shone through the clouds in many years. Knowledge and thought has been banned, but an underground tribe of “seekers” continue to pursue scientific experimentation and mathematical calculation. A young woman named Ganil, who’s achieved mastery in the crude industrial culture and is engaged to be married to the son of a mucky-muck, possesses unusual aptitude for math. Despite being cautioned against this pursuit and the prospect of bodily mutilation and ostracism, egged on by a renegade from another region named Lee, Ganil focuses on numerical patterns that exist in nature, studying them to the point of neglecting other concerns. (Can you say Sunday in the Cave with Ganil?) In one of the weirder yet fascinating musical numbers I’ve encountered in the theater, she basically discovers or re-invents the Fibonacci sequence. The climactic moment of the show is when she realizes that there is a predictable, elaborate, elegant pattern that shows up in nature, and she proclaims this awesome phenomenon to be “the face of God.” Are we meant to take that seriously and agree with her? Is she truly seeking a scientific alternative to the superstition of the mainstream culture, or is she exchanging one fundamentalist faith-based system with another? Does she have no other language for something mysterious and powerful than to call it “God” and is that the show’s point? (I haven’t read LeGuin’s story, so I don’t know how much of this is original to her or shaped by the adaptors.) Is the show making a case for intelligent-design theory? I had a good juicy discussion of all this over drinks and dessert at French Roast with Andy and Allen, who are both science-fiction/fantasy geeks and enjoyed the show more than I did.

February 22 – Steven Watson had an extra ticket at the last minute to see the showing of “The Lost Films of  Charles Ludlam” (two black-and-white silent shorts left unfinished when he died in 1987)  in the “Queer/Art/Film” series at the IFC Center, hosted by filmmaker Ira Sachs and BUTT magazine editor Adam Baran. I was delighted to go, and I’m glad I went. Not that the movies are great. They’re decidedly not. It was a little like watching the dailies from an extremely low-budget student film – zero editing, bad lighting, mugging rather than acting, every shot going on 20 times longer than necessary (every shot!). But still…there was the late great Charles Ludlam, playing a bisexual convict on the lam in Museum of Wax – it’s thrilling to see his incredibly expressive face on film. And you get a glimpse of him naked on a train in The Sorrows of Dolores, a madcap takeoff on The Perils of Pauline starring Everett Quinton (above) with Ridiculous Theater stalwarts Black-Eyed Susan, Lola Pashalinski, John D. Brockmeyer, and Minette in smaller roles. (Both films would probably be better off being shown as slideshows — brief slideshows! But with some of the terrific music Peter Golub apparently whipped up at short notice for these screenings.) Everett introduced the films alongside Anthony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons fame), who selected the films for showing in the festival and gave a rambling but personal and touching talk about his introduction to the lineage of gay drag theater. The audience for this event pretty much WAS the event. Lots of familiar faces, art fags of every age and gender. It was one of those nights where New York felt like a little tiny cozy village.

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