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Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide

Theatre Review by Jose Solís - November 7, 2017

Shane Baker and Everett Quinton
Photo by Theo Cote

Despite its irreverent comedic nature, Charles Ludlam subtitled Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide, his take on Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great as "a tragedy," and watching the revival that opened November 6 at La Mama‘s Ellen Stewart Theatre, it becomes quite clear that fifty years after it was first staged, Ludlam's ode to the ridiculous has become in fact something close to a tragedy given the fractured state of American politics. As with Marlowe's voracious conqueror, inspired by Mongolian Emperor Timur, Ludlam's Tamberlaine (Grant Neale) desires more than he can consume, not satisfied with being the ruler and commander of planet Earth, he wants to extend his reach to all planets in the solar system.

But like the current buffoon-in-chief, Tamberlaine's strategies for conquest rely on bullying and humiliating those who stand in his way. Encouraged by his vain wife, Alice (played by Brian Belovitch), Tamberlaine proceeds to backstab and ambush rulers of other planets, such as Zabina (the wonderful Everett Quinton) who he kidnaps and imprisons, and Venus (a delicious Géraldine Dulex) the insatiable goddess of love who finds out that betrayal has no respect for carnal pleasure, as she's taken prisoner mid-orgasm.

Planet by planet, Tamberlaine terrorizes the inhabitants and slowly makes his way towards complete domination, only to discover—as any wise person could've told him—that the more he owns the emptier he'll feel. Neale's portrayal of Tamberlaine as an oversized child who never takes no for an answer, feels scarily as if the President's tweets had suddenly become more than disembodied words. Neale delivers his dialogues machine-gun-style, with each joke and insult becoming more aggressive and mean spirited than the previous one. The character is best encapsulated by the fact he loves asking his servants and slaves to indulge him with sexist jokes in which the punchlines are identifiable by their mentions of genitalia.

If the times we're living in have made the play all the more relevant, and its eventual message of uprising almost inspirational, it's testament to Ludlam's writing that the play manages to still be subtle even as it wears all its themes on its prominent sleeve. If the play was scandalous in 1967, by 2017 it hasn't become less so, it revels in the kind of sexuality that most mainstream works desperately try to evade (dildos and butts galore!), but in doing so it empowers the characters who embrace sexuality as an essential part of what makes them human. A group sex scene is only made the more bold, by our realization that a woman is in complete control of how she receives and gives pleasure, rather than being merely objectified, and when we meet the mysterious ballerina of Uranus, who appears holding oversized feather fans and is covered from head to toe (including a mask) in gold lamé, we are reminded that feminine mystique lies not in the obvious, as Hugh Hefner would've wanted to have us think, but rather in how they move in the world.

This production of Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide showcases theatre of the absurd at the peak of its powers: it's entertaining, illuminating and empowering.

Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide
Through November 19
The Ellen Stewart Theatre at La Mama, 66 East 4th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix