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What's New on the Rialto

Everett Quinton
Interview by Michael Portantiere


Everett Quinton as Galas
Photo by Tim Goodwin
Working in close collaboration with the late, great Charles Ludlam, his life partner, Everett Quinton helped create a clutch of downtown theater classics with the fabled Ridiculous Theatrical Company in the heart of Greenwich Village during the 1970s and '80s. Ludlam died of AIDS in 1987, but Quinton has kept the spirit of the Ridiculous alive by shepherding and/or appearing in revivals of such classics as The Mystery of Irma Vep and Camille. Now he's playing the title role in the first-ever revival of Galas, Ludlam's takeoff on the life of opera diva Maria Callas, running June 13-28 at the Theater at St. Johns at 81 Christopher Street—accurately described as "a stone's throw" from both the original home of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company and from the Stonewall, site of the 1969 uprisings that sparked the modern gay rights movement. I recently chatted with Everett about this singular event celebrating World Pride in New York City and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion.

Michael Portantiere:  I'm privileged to have seen the original Ridiculous productions of Irma Vep, Camille, Galas, and that Wagner opera spoof you all did, Der Ring Gott Farblonjet. Given those last three titles I named, I assume that both you and Charles were huge opera fans.

Everett Quinton:  Well, I was just becoming an opera fan, and Charles already was - but I think I became an even bigger opera fan than he was. Galas was fun. It's weird that it was so long ago that we did it.

MP:  And Maria Callas had already been dead for several years when the show opened.

EQ:  Yes. She died in '77, and we did it in '83.

MP:  I looked up Frank Rich's review, and he quoted the program, which had a note that read: "The characters in the play are real, only their names have been changed to protect the playwright." As you recall, was there any major concern with legalities, and is that why Charles called the play Galas?

EQ:  I think so. The thought was that they could sue if we used her real name. Didn't Olivia DeHavilland just sue someone for something like that?

MP:  Yes! It was the TV show "Feud."

EQ:   So I guess people can do that. I wasn't aware of it at the time; Charles was probably more aware of it than I was.

MP:  I've always wondered why there's only one "l" in the title, so it looks like the word "galas."

EQ:  I think that's intentional. It's glorifying her life, making it like a gala. That's part of the reason for the title.

MP:  Charles did a wonderful job of approximating Callas's speech, which was so unusual. She was born in New York but spent a lot of her youth in Greece, yet her speech had almost a pretentious sound to it. Are you going for something like that?

EQ:  I'm not a mimic, I never was. I am trying to do that nasal thing that she did, but I'm just going to let it come out. I know what you mean, but I wouldn't say her speech was pretentious. She knew she wasn't a heavyweight intellectual, but I think sometimes she wanted to appear to be that—and then, sometimes, she used the wrong words. But I don't think it's pretension, I think it's something else. I think it's fear. She was trying to be this grande dame. I remember I saw Renata Tebaldi being interviewed as an older woman on an Italian TV show; the interviewer called her Madame Tebaldi, and she said, "Call me Renata." That would never have happened in the old days. She lived long enough for the times to change, but Maria didn't. It was part of the game.


Mark Erson, Everett Quinton, Géraldine Dulex,
and Shane Baker in Galas

Photo by Kevin Scullin
MP:   You originally played the character Bruna in Galas, a combination of the opera singer Lina Bruna Rasa and Bruna Lupoli, who was Callas's housekeeper in later life. Did you do lots of research on them when you played that role?

EQ:  Well, now you pull up Bruna Rasa online and there are millions of things about her, but at the time, there was very little. One time, Bidu Sayão came to see our show. I always tell this story: I took the phone call for the tickets, and they said her name with a Portuguese accent, so I didn't understand it. I just wrote down, "Somebody's coming who wants two tickets." Then Charles came running backstage after the performance, and he said, "Everett! Bidu Sayão is here! Bidu Sayão is here!!!" And then she came down the stairs in a blonde mink coat. Charles got down on his knee and kissed the hem of her coat, and then she walked over to me and said, "Can I give you one criticism?" I said, "Sure." I thought, "It's Bidu Sayão. Take it like a man, Everett!" And she said: "I knew Bruna Rasa quite well, and she had big boobies." That's what she said to me—it's quite a memory. Then, later, she sent Charles a picture of herself in Traviata, and she signed it, "To Charles, from one Violetta to another."

MP:  What a fabulous story. I forgot to look this up, had the Callas bio by Arianna Stassinopoulos [Huffington] been published when you did the show?

EQ:  Yes, that was out. Before that, I'll never forget this, I had donated all these Callas books to a church rummage sale—and then I had to buy them again.

MP:  Have you seen the fairly recent documentary on Callas?

EQ:  I did. There were some very interesting things in it, like that story about when the elephant knocked her down!

MP:  I thought one of the best things about it was that they unearthed that extensive, never-aired interview she did with David Frost.

EQ:  Yes. I hope she eventually figured out a way to relax. Who knows? I was a big fan of hers, as a young opera queen.

MP:  Have you ever played Galas before?

EQ:  No, but a couple of years ago, we did a reading of it. I was working with Theater Breaking Through Barriers—a theater for the disabled here in the city—and one of the plays we read was Galas.

MP:  In addition to appearing in the original production, you did the costumes, but I assume you're leaving that to someone else now?

EQ:  Yes, Ramona Ponce. She did costumes for us at the Ridiculous, and she's doing them [for this show]. There's no time for me to do costumes, I've gotta get my bloody lines down.

MP:  It's a lot of lines, isn't it?

EQ:  Yes. These are the things you pray for—and then you get them!

MP:  When you were doing these plays originally with the Ridiculous, did you ever give any thought to what kind of a life they might have beyond Charles?

EQ:  Not really. You hope. I guess you don't really realize you're part of these great things. I do remember, for a while, I thought I was going to die of AIDS, and then it turned out I wasn't HIV positive. But anyway, the people who published the plays [in book form] called me and said that they wanted to pare them down and edit them [for publication]. That's when I thought I was about to go to heaven, so I said to them, "Listen, I'm probably gonna die, and I would like the whole canon preserved. If we're not gonna do that, then why bother?" So, in that sense, I knew that they were worth preserving. I'm very proud that The Mystery of Irma Vep is going to endure, but the other plays I'm not so sure of. Putting a man in drag onstage is still, in some senses, looked down upon, and many theaters won't touch these plays because of that.

MP:  And now, maybe they won't touch them for different reasons, due to sensitivities regarding trans people and gender identity.

EQ:  Yes. We're all going to have to seek some unity there, because it doesn't exist now.

MP: I've seen two productions of Charles's Camille since the original, and I think maybe that's another show that will last.

EQ: I hope so, but my problem is that some people don't know how to do it. They think it's all camp—but also, they don't get camp. They don't know what it is, they don't get the intimacy of it. When I did Camille, I remembered that Charles always talked about hearing the pocketbooks open at the end—hearing women in the audience open their pocketbooks to get their tissues. And then I was doing the play in London, and I heard the pocketbooks being opened at the end. That was a pretty amazing thing for me.

MP: Yes, it's wonderful when you do a play that's so over-the-top for much of its length but then you can get to honest, serious emotion at the end.

EQ:  Doing Galas again reminds me of Camille. It has the same arc, and then you come to the ending ...

MP: Where Callas is all alone in Paris, just like the heroine of Camille.

EQ:  Yes. She's all alone, and you know what's coming. I feel like I'm at the point in rehearsal where I'm ready to take off with it, and I'm working with all these wonderful actors who are ready to take off with it as well. I think Charles would be very proud of it.


Galas runs June 13-28, 2019, at the Theatre at St. John's. For tickets, visit galas.brownpapertickets.com.


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