'Beyond Ridiculous' - Kenneth Elliott's theatrical tell-all

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Thursday March 28, 2024
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Author Kenneth Elliott
Author Kenneth Elliott

It's been 40 years since Theater-in-Limbo made its debut in the then-wreckage of the East Village before gentrification turned it into entirely different place. The AIDS epidemic had just begun to spread widely, and Manhattan itself was undergoing massive changes.

In the midst of this, Kenneth Elliott, along with co-founder, playwright and actor Charles Busch, created a new style of irreverent and campy theater. The ensemble performed plays penned by Busch, most of them a hilarious parody and homage to classic camp films and world history.

In "Beyond Ridiculous: Making Gay Theatre with Charles Busch in 1980s New York," (University of Iowa Press), Elliott recounts the history of this unique art movement.

Named after the nightclub Limbo Lounge where they debuted their first play, "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," the company, with interchanging participants, would go on to perform in almost a dozen plays penned by and mostly starring Busch, until the early 1990s when actors had either left the company or died, and Busch had moved on to more commercial interests.

Some of their earlier performances may have been marred by the cramped overheated nightclub, which forced them out into an outdoor patio, where they performed more appropriately with a series of faux-primitive statues; until it rained, and the makeshift yard/stage became a pool of mud. Still, audiences reveled in seeing the raw and hilarious new experience.

As actor, director and producer, Elliott shares firsthand knowledge of the entire backstage happenings that took place over the course of those years. Preceded in style in the West Village by Charles Ludlum and his Ridiculous Theatre Company, Busch performed with the company in one show, but had a very unpleasant experience. Although he decided to make his own lighter version of camp drag theater, he couldn't shake critics' comparisons for years.

Author Elliott shares a fascinating array of details, from hiring technical staff to renting venues, which included many mishaps, and a few skittering rats. The company's initial look and style were aided by Bill Whitehall's innovative flyer and set designs — limited to colorfully thematic backdrops and adornments to the proscenium, when there was one — and costumes by John Glazer, who turned plastic forks into gold crowns.

Kenneth Elliott and Charles Busch in a 1984 press photo for 'Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium' (photo: George Dudley)  

The company's devoted audiences were mostly found in the gay community at first. Occasionally, a mainstream publication would give them a nod and flocks of confused tourists would fill a theater's seats. But some of the shows remained too obscure for them to understand, and the shows didn't last long. Some of them lost money.

A few of the plays enjoyed some success in Off-Broadway theaters, including "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," which ran for five years at the Provincetown Playhouse in the West Village. But with Elliott and Busch later spreading themselves a bit thin with later multiple shows being developed or performed, other productions didn't fare so well. Still, their influence on the performing arts remains noteworthy.

Anyone interested in the art and business of theater will be fascinated by the specific details that Elliott provides, from finding backers for shows to even the technical specifics of the shape and size of theaters and how it affected audience reactions.

From the messy World nightclub to the more "legitimate" Lucille Lortel Theatre, the company's various successes and failures are documented, along with theater critics' praise and pans. Woven into the history is the decimating course that AIDS took, noted by memorial events created by surviving company members.

Although the heart of the company had a creative period of little more than a decade, the shows live on in revivals and regional versions, even a tour to Japan. Towards the end, Elliott describes his later attempt at television directing, his falling out with Busch, and his eventual successful career in academia.

Busch moved on to more mainstream plays, television and film roles, including adaptations of some of his Limbo scripts. Of course, an apt companion reading would be "Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy" by Charles Busch, reviewed in our October 5 2023 issue.

Thorough in detail yet compact in structure, with several production photos, footnotes, a bibliography and an index, Elliott's book is a must-have for any theater professional or fan of queer arts.

'Beyond Ridiculous: Making Gay Theatre with Charles Busch in 1980s New York,' by Kenneth Elliott, University of Iowa Press. Paperback, $35.

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