Originally produced in 1983, Charles Ludlam’s Galas: A Modern Tragedy has returned to New York City in a resurrection of the spirit of Ludlam’s renegade Ridiculous Theatrical Company. This revival, now playing at the Theatre at St. John’s, is directed by and stars Everett Quinton as “Galas”. Quinton appeared in Ludlam’s original production. The revival’s timing was intentional, as New York City celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and World Pride 2019. Who is the titular character of “Maria Magdalena Galas” based on? Well, two guesses won’t be necessary…
An American-born Greek soprano, Galas’ inspiration Maria Callas was widely considered to be one of the most praised and influential opera singers of the 20th century. While Callas’ legacy gets perennially “rediscovered” by the public– most recently in a 2018 big-screen documentary– the younger generations may not appreciate the extent of the public’s fascination with “La Divina” during her glory (and not-so-glory) days. Like so many other scandal-stricken celebs through pop culture history, Callas’ personal life often overshadowed her artistic merits. In the case of Ms. Callas, that overshadowing happened again and again. But even those aforementioned artistic merits– specifically, her legendary vocal ability– was a subject of controversy through the decades. Not one to miss any delicious deets, Ludlam alluded to this when a character in Galas named Ghingheri (Shane Baker) keenly states, “She can’t sing, but she can create a scandal!” It’s no mystery why Ludlam found the diva’s story so ripe for the stage– and oh-so-perfect for his targeted audience, by the way. So many of the tidbits about Callas’ life that are shown in Galas— including the singer’s severe nearsightedness, her much-talked about weight loss, her lawsuit against a pasta company, and even that darn tapeworm rumor– were indeed based on fact. Of course, Calas’ most overwhelming trait was her famously tempestuous personality– which Quinton channels via Galas with unapologetic glee. This Diva-with-a-capital-“D” is even rude to the Pope, for Saint Pete’s sake!
Galas is subtitled “A Modern Tragedy”, and indeed it is. After leaving her kind husband/manager Giovanni Baptista Mercanteggini (Beth Dodye Bass), Ms. Galas starts an ill-fated affair with Aristotle Plato Socrates Odysseus (a cellophane-veiled reference to Aristotle Onassis, played with gusto by Mark Erson), and eventually ends up alone and miserable with only her long-suffering maid and a dead dog to keep her company. But make no mistake: this unearthed gem of underground vintage theater is first and foremost a comedy. None of the cast ever “plays it straight” in Galas— which, of course, suits this fantastically queer production just perfectly. So, right from the beginning, the audience is treated to overly-exaggerated Italian accents (some of which are abandoned by the cast at some point, in a “F*** it!” sort of way), deliciously tacky set pieces, a menagerie of outrageous supporting characters, and an infinite stream of bitchy dialogue that’s sharp enough to… uhm, open clams with. Whether they are engaging in naughty hijinks at a costume party on Aristotle’s yacht or participating in arguably the gayest mass in theatrical history, the cast of Galas consistently delivers laugh-out-loud humor and camp that’s so over the top that we’re thankful for the high ceilings of the Theatre at St. John’s. (This theater is, after all, a church…)
The entire cast is superb, particularly Mr. Quinton as this fictional singer whose name “rhymes with Callas”. Sure enough, there are some bona fide moments of pure pathos towards il gran finale, and Quinton even offers an occasional sympathetic touch to his role, showing a vulnerable, almost childlike side to the unstable diva. The supporting cast, many playing multiple roles, are equally excellent. As the self-flagellating maid Bruna (As if being Galas’ servant wasn’t being enough of a martyr already…), Jenne Vath is no less than hilarious, showing supreme skills of wordless comedy. As Pope Sixtus VII (“six to seven”… Get it?), Shane Baker gets many of the play’s funniest lines and moments of machine-gun style comic delivery… although Chris Johnson (as “Ilka Winterhalter” and “Fritalini”) comes close.
How would the notorious narcissistic Maria Callas feel about this offbeat “tribute”? We can’t say. But one thing’s for sure: Charles Ludlam would be proud, and his fans will be delighted.
Galas: A Modern Tragedy, presented by The Theatre at St. John’s in association with Yorick Theater, continues through June 28 at The Theatre at St. John’s, 81 Christopher Street, New York City. Visit www.stjohnsnyc.org for tickets and more information. The play stars Everett Quinton, Shane Baker, Maude Lardner Burke, Beth Dodye Bass, Géraldine Dulex, Christopher Johnson, Jenne Vath and Mark Erson. Scenic design is by Jim Boutin; lighting design is by Robert Neapolitan; costume design is by Ramona Ponce. Karen Oughtred serves as Stage Manager.
(Photos by Theo Cote.)