Off Broadway Reviews
Salt Theater knows all too well that summer is a perfect time for camping, so their production of Charles Ludlam's 1967 Conquest of the Universe (or When Queens Collide) will fit right in.
With a very large cast (including men dressed as women and women dressed as men), toy lightsabers, and costumes and line delivery right out of space comic books or low budget sci-fi movies, subtlety is certainly not one of the show's strengths. Nor should it be, necessarily, as its story - about Tamburlaine, the king of Earth, setting his sights on conquering the stars - is hardly subtle itself.
Making a story about such a despicable character not only watchable but enjoyable, especially while music, food, and sex are exploding all around the characters, controlling their lives in ways expected and surprising, is not easy, though director Emma Griffin is more than up to the task. Her company of performers is so committed to making the production work that most of its missteps (which are minor) are eventually crushed under the weight of the all-consuming conceptual wackiness.
And why not? The play itself, a take-off on "conquering the universe" plots that have formed the basis of drama for centuries, not only works with these elements, but benefits from them. They help draw the story about the dangers of power and the corruption of leadership due to such things as power and sex into much clearer focus. Taking bits from such diverse sources as Marlowe, Shakespeare, television commercials, and even Adolf Hitler speeches, on some level, the characters and their actions are all familiar "types," which frees the audience from having to make guesses about them. Ludlam makes sure we know at the outset, so we can get on to more important things.
Griffin's designers - Katya Blumenberg on sets, David Zinn and Meredith Palin on costumes, and Mark Barton and Greg Emetaz on lights - have captured the spirit of the work beautifully. It's the sort of shabby, low-budget chic that's ideal for this style, complete with clashing colors and a zany 1950s-1960s style throughout. The stage's boundaries, for example, are defined with glow-in-the-dark stars and balls hang from the ceiling like planets, all this putting the audience in the world of the play before it even starts.
As for the performances, they're all highly presentational and over the top, so they all stand out. Maria Striar, as the First Lady of Earth, is stuffy but adventurous; Clayton Dean Smith and Gibson Frazier as the King and Queen of Mars are excellent as the piece's melodramatic anti-villains; and Rachel Shukert's sex-crazed Venus (queen of Venus, of course) is a major comic highlight in show with five around every corner.
Only a couple of problems mar the experience, both easily fixable should Salt Theater continue to develop the production. Matthew Maher's Tamburlaine is unfocused and inconsistent with the spirit of the other performers, as if he's not quite in on the joke, and while it's an appropriate concept for the character, Maher doesn't make it convincing. More seriously, though, is their current theater's unforgiving acoustics, which swallow, distort, and muddy the sound of much of the pulpy underscoring and shouting that drive the play.
If Conquest of the Universe moves beyond the Ohio Theatre, where its run ends tomorrow, it's a problem that Griffin and Salt Theater will no doubt work out in their new space. Having extra time to hone and get everything exactly right will only help the show, but the achievements of this production, even with a limited rehearsal and performance period are significant. Everyone involved has done an excellent job at bringing this gravity-defying play down to Earth.
Ice Factory/Salt Theater