New York

“Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde”

The Ridiculous Theatrical Company

For the last fifteen years Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company has sent up every imaginable target, among them such subjects as Richard Wagner (Der Ring Gott Farblonjet), Hamlet (Stage Blood), and soap opera (Love’s Tangled Web). The most recent object of Ridiculous wit is the “avant-garde,” shrewdly chosen at a time when a ’60s-based performing-arts avant-garde has achieved unprecedented and widespread public notice. Of course, artistic director Ludlam is experimental and “avant” too; his rewrite of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, in a script of stinging wit, bad jokes, topical references, and deliberate banalities, is itself a traditional avant-garde maneuver, a reworking of a classic in contemporary terms.

The play’s opening is a mock theatrical quote and an all-around metaphor for what follows: after three knocks of a staff on the stage floor, cheap and tacky chandeliers are jerkily pulled to the ceiling of the equally cheap and tacky drawing room/ranch house set. The particular avant-garde which is this production’s main target is the ’60s-rooted, serious, brainy performing art that not incidentally defined the milieu in which the Ridiculous Theatrical Company was originally formed. So when Mr. Rufus Foufas (Ludlam), millionaire businessman, hires a composer, a choreographer, and a poet for the production of a truly avant-garde event to aid him in seducing a beautiful avant-garde actress, there’s lots of banter about creating “pieces, not plays,” “movement, not dance,” and “sound, not music”; about “saying something without meaning anything”; and about abstraction, minimalism, and ontology in theater (Mr. Foufas: “Ontology is, well, being.” Mrs. Foufas: “Aren’t I being?”). Things quickly go from bad to burlesque: there’s talk of “artex,” a kind of art substitute sans artmaking; Molière’s famous “Am I speaking prose” dialogue hangs on a love letter which is “deconstructed” by being torn to pieces and “rewritten” by being drawn a word at a time out of a hat; a mock-graffiti artist, Moderna 83, spray-paints a “portrait” of Mrs. Foufas which is all squirts and squiggles. And a post-avant-garde, an “avant-derriere,” is characterized by plastic buttocks worn frontally rather than behind.

Like the theater it parodies, Ludlam’s Ridiculous company is an ensemble group with a clearly defined performing style, one drawn from commedia dell’ arte and just plain “bad” acting, from puppetry and TV cartoons, from vaudeville, silent movies, and sitcoms. Lines are more spewed than delivered (and when delivered, really “delivered”), and there’s lots of exaggerated physical overacting—eye-rolling, double takes, clichéd gestures, and idiosyncratic tic-like fidgets. There’s also a great deal of sheer physical knockabout, caricaturish costumes, and preposterous props to fill in the Ridiculous’ broad outlines.

As the latest installment in Ludlam’s repertory, Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde is good, not great, Ridiculous. But this kind of play acting, at once buffoonish and sophisticated, presents its own pleasures even when the action falters, shticks go on too long, or when wit simply flags. A whirligig of theatrical references and styles, Ludlam and Company finally create their own original synthesis of subversive comedy out of an ideological performing stance willing to take on any subject at hand (like the card-carrying avant-garde theater they both satirize and belong to); ultimately the virtues and flaws of a given production seem less important than the constant process of performance as an exploration. The Irish like to say that the most serious people are those who laugh the most; on this scale the Ridiculous enterprise is in the category of the sublime.

John Howell