Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1998
Charles Ludlam (1943-1987) was one of the leading players of the off-off- Broadway avant-garde theatre scene in New York City for over twenty years. Between the time he founded his Ridiculous Theatre Company in 1967 until his death due to complications from AIDS in 1987, Ludlam completed 29 plays, won 6 Obie Awards, and had his work funded by grants from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts.
And yet I would bet that few of you have heard his name or seen one of his plays produced. Why? Because Ludlam was gay and his plays are decidedly weird. Even though the rapid pace of the gay liberation movement has rendered much of what was outrageous and shocking in Ludlam's work merely amusing, his works are not the stuff of which a safe summer stock season is made. What will the subscribers say to the sex, cross dressing, nudity, and general bawdiness Ludlam puts on parade?
For the sake of theatrical diversity in Berkshire County, I seriously hope the BTF subscibers vote thumbs up. Certainly the Unicorn has mounted an enjoyable production of Ludlam's '80's farce "The Secret Lives of the Sexists". Think of the general mayhem of a standard sex farce and then put it in a blender. In "Charley's Aunt" or "Some Like It Hot" the hilarity of men in drag adds a new twist to the usual mistaken identity hi-jinks. Well, in this play every man in the cast dons full drag before the night is out - and one of them actually plays a female role throughout.
"The Secret Lives of the Sexists" is Camp with a capital C. In the midst of Kenechi Toki's vividly colored set and surrounded by non-stop disco music, two brothers Buddy (Michael Dowling) and Izzy (Rob Grader) Husband, and their wives Nadine (Gin Hammond) and Fanny (Tom Story), end up solving all the problems in their respective marriages through the wild series of events stemming from Nadine's mistaken impression that Buddy is having an affair with stripper-turned-beauty-shop-owner Mme. Zena Grossfinger (Leslie Bandle), who is, in actuality, Nadine's birth mother. Throw in lusty aerobics teacher Phil Landers (Richard Ruiz) who beds all three women before the play is out, and you have a pretty standard farce set-up.
What Ludlam is about is poking wild fun at heterosexual conventions through one of the straight community's favorite art forms - the bedroom farce. What the men find out about their women when they dress in drag to infiltrate a meeting of Women Against Stenography is what turns the tide in this play. What they can't accomplish as straight men, they can accomplish as transvestites.
But don't be fooled into thinking that there is anything conventional about "Secret Lives". The focus on sex, sexuality and sexism begins with a partial strip-tease by Bandle and continues through endless sex acts - real, imagined, interrupted and completed. You get to see all the men (who are playing men) in their undershorts and in drag. Bandle bears a breast and Hammond flounces around in her bra and a pair of gym shorts for much of Act II. If bawdy language, semi-nudity, and simulated or suggested sex bother you, don't go to this show. If you like to laugh, by all means, get your tickets now.
It is amazing how attractive the men look in drag - especially Ruiz, who is drop-dead gorgeous, as well as howlingly funny, especially in the scene where he demonstrates having an orgasm in his face (don't ask - you've got to see it to believe it.) Story does a fine job as Fanny, although I cannot decide whether he was being a drag queen playing a woman's role, or just doing his own interpretation of feminity. Either way, it was lots of fun. Dowling is hilarious as the gee-whiz, straight-as-an-arrow Buddy who makes the fatal mistake of tells his wife that he considers her incapable of having an affair. Dowling in drag bears a strong resemblance to the late Graham Chapman, which adds to the fun. While Grader had some funny moments as Izzy, I found his characterization almost to weird even for a Ludlam show - which is saying a lot!
With the men showing off all of their masculine and feminine charms, it was hard for the real women to compete. Bandle did her aging southern floozy routine to the hilt, but just missed exuding really sexuality. Hammond showed great physical presence as a comedienne. A slight woman with few natural curves, she often seemed dwarfed by all the giant bosoms - real and fake - with which she was surrounded.
In closing, this north county resident cannot resist mentioning a hilarious jab at another local summer theatre inserted into the end of Act II. At a moment when all on stage believe that Ruiz' character is A) gay; and B) has jumped to his death from a window ledge (he isn't and he hasn't); Dowling waxes sentimental over those wonderful plays from the 1950's when the homosexual always ended up killing himself out of guilt and remorse. "Why don't they do plays like that anymore?" he asks Story, to which the latter replies, "They do - in Williamstown."
"The Secret Lives of the Sexists" runs through September 5 at the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge. Call 413-298-5576 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1998