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BY DAVID NOH | The late, great Charles Ludlam wrote dozens of plays, but they are rarely revived right here in the very city in which he pioneered the alternative theater scene. To remedy that, La MaMa is reviving his “Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide,” commemorating both the playwright’s founding of his Ridiculous Theatrical Company half a century ago and his death 30 years ago. Inspired by Christopher Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine the Great” and set in outer space, it’s a futuristic tale of war across the universe with Tamberlaine capturing various kings and queens (of course) from Mars, Venus, and Saturn with names like Zabina, Natolia, and Cosroe.
This production is being directed by Ludlam’s longtime partner, Everett Quinton, and I snatched the opportunity to discuss it with him at a favorite West Village neighborhood haunt, Hudson Diner.
Joining us was actor Brian Belovitch, who is playing Alice, the wife of Tamberlaine. I met Belovitch an eon ago, at his Hell’s Kitchen apartment when he was then known as Tish Gervaise, one of Manhattan’s most lauded trans personalities and certainly the sexiest. Looking like Claudia Cardinale’s younger and even more voluptuous sister, Tish sauntered through the clubs and then-Bohemian nabes of this burg, leaving a wake of devout fans and gob-smacked guys behind her. Michael Musto was at Tish’s place, too, as was Holly fucking Woodlawn, and we all had a gay old time, perusing Antonio Lopez’s opulent new Arabian Nights-inspired book, for which Tish had modeled, and dishing some serious dirt (including what an avid fan of Screw magazine’s back page ads for transgender escorts Eddie Murphy was).
It was a quite heavenly reunion, during the course of which, while discussing “Conquest of the Universe,” Zsa Zsa Gabor’s immortally trashy sci-fi epic “Queen of Outer Space” was heavily discussed. (You knew it would be.) Quinton, who spent this past summer memorizing a full act of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” which he performed for a one-night stand in Provincetown at the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, said, “I was asked which of Charles’ plays they should use for this commemoration and I chose this, which was the first one he did when he started the Ridiculous. He would read the newspaper every day and just be inspired by whatever news story caught his fancy and wrote a play from that. And, as Tamberlaine, we have Grant Neale, who was in the original production! I play two roles: Cosroe and Zabina. It’s a big production, we’re excited about the fabulous design of it, and I just want to get it up on its feet! I’m so proud of this cast, which I hand-picked. Of course, it’s very gay: you know, Charles used to say, ‘I get down on my knees every day and thank God I’m gay!’ ”
Belovitch described his role as “a cross between Suzanne Sugarbaker from ‘Designing Women’ and Ann Richards, although not as smart. But she does use coquetry and various feminine wiles to gain power. You know, I haven’t acted or done drag in so long, look what I have to wear now, which I didn’t use to need!” And with that, Belovitch pulled out not only a cunning pair of high heels but a couple of hip pads.
Tish Gervaise certainly didn’t need them back in the day, and Belovitch recounted some of his mesmerizing past.
“I’m from Providence, Rhode Island, and always knew I was different from age four or five. The first guy I was ever with was around 15, from high school. Tall and skinny with long hair. He took me to this place by the railroad tracks where you went into this building where there was some cardboard which had been laid out and a candle. It wasn’t traumatizing at all. That shit happened later, when I was introduced to the local nearby cruising ground and started hopping in and out of cars.”
Belovitch began transitioning in his teens and came to New York — away from a decidedly non-supportive family with six siblings — where he fell into modeling and the cabaret/club world. He praised the great Lopez as “the most generous man. He drew me a bunch of times and I luckily still have some sketches. But he really got me, all of us, really, and was so very kind. When you posed for him, he made you feel like you were really something special.
“But you know, I tried everything, got married [to a soldier for five years and lived on a German army base], had my own rock band, modeled as a woman, and no one knew the difference. But I was too ahead of my time, and the frustration got to me. A downward spiral of drugs — crack cocaine, honey, it was the ’80s!
“But I got myself to rehab and have been sober for a very long time. Then I decided to stop transitioning and became a man again. I’m so happy now, have a new husband — a horticulturist. We live in Brooklyn, and I work in a rehab center now, as a counselor, because I have been there and so know what that’s all about.”
I frankly cannot wait to get to La MaMa and revel once more in the delirium, fun, and authentic wit of Ludlam’s universe, especially with these two fabulous veterans who’ve known each other forever. And I will never forget Belovitch’s line when once asked how he felt after having his breasts removed. Referencing a famous Mary Tyler Moore TV movie of the week, he said, “First, you cry.”
Through Nov. 19: Thurs., Fri. & Sat. at 8pm; Sun. at 4pm & Mon., Nov. 6 at 8pm. At La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre (66 E. Fourth St., btw. Bowery & Second Ave., second fl.). For tickets ($31; $26 for students & seniors), visit lamama.org/ludlam. SPECIAL EVENT: Coffeehouse Chronicles, La MaMa’s educational performance series exploring the history and development of Off-Off Broadway, will look at the groundbreaking Ridiculous Theatrical Company and the work of its co-founder actor, playwright and director, Charles Ludlam. This free event (donation suggested) happens Sat., Nov. 11, 3pm at the Ellen Stewart Theatre.