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Beyond Ridiculous: Making Gay Theatre with Charles Busch in 1980s New York
by Kenneth Elliott
Book Review by Mark Dundas Wood

The history of Theatre-in-Limbo, the celebrated company that emerged in Manhattan's East Village in the mid-1980s, may seem to some people too slim a subject for a whole book, especially one that would be engaging to a general audience. And yet, Beyond Ridiculous: Making Gay Theatre with Charles Busch in 1980s New York, the new study by Kenneth Elliott, touches on things that many readers will be curious about. Certainly, anyone interested in the history of Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theatre in the last half of the 20th century will find value in it. Plus, the book touches on gay New Yorkers' response to the horrendous AIDS crisis. And it has things to say to readers interested in the history of drag performance (and the drag sensibility in general).

Beyond Ridiculous is actually one of two books from late 2023 in which the Theatre-in-Limbo story is traced. The other is Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy by the playwright and star of the Limbo company, Charles Busch, who had set the whole thing in motion with Lesbian Vampires of Sodom, the sensation that opened at the Limbo Lounge on East 10th Street in April 1984. Busch has, in fact, told the Limbo tale once before, in his 1993 roman a clef, Whores of Lost Atlantis, a book that, according to Elliott, didn't sit too well with some members of the defunct company, who objected to being caricatured as odd birds. It's nonetheless a madcap, entertaining novel.

Elliott is arguably, after Busch, the most important player in the Theatre-in Limbo saga. (Performer Julie Halston would probably be second runner-up.) Elliott directed the company's shows. He acted in some of them. He was also involved in producing and management tasks. Busch himself had little interest in the business side of things, Elliott notes.

For those who have followed the career of Busch over the decades, Beyond Ridiculous is a welcome offering. The author had access to transcripts of interviews with Theatre-in-Limbo associates that were conducted back in the days when the story was unfolding. This helps give this book the aspect of a documentary.

The author had met Busch when the two were students at Northwestern University in 1973. When both wound up in New York City in 1980, they became roommates and longtime collaborators.

As both authors would seem to agree, the earliest Theatre-in-Limbo performances were as much social gatherings as they were serious theatrical presentations. But word of mouth about Vampire Lesbians, with its campy dialogue and cross-dressing performers (some cross-dressed, not all), resulted in an increasingly loyal fan base. The show's provocative title helped, too. The company followed up with a series of new Busch plays, often with equally outlandish names: Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium, Gidget Goes Psycho (later renamed Psycho Beach Party), and Pardon My Inquisition (as in the Spanish one). While the production values became increasingly refined over the years, a limited-budget-evident, homespun quality seems always to have been part of the shows' appeal.

Not everyone was happy with the arrival of Busch and company, however. The East Village in the early 1980s was largely a rough-and-tumble place, blighted with poverty and addiction. Underground performance spaces and makeshift art galleries were scattered in the neighborhood (the Limbo Lounge itself was a gallery by day), but residents of the area largely opposed gentrification, which would, they felt, push them out of their homes. They saw outsiders such as the Limbo players as interlopers who would likely encourage such yuppie incursions.

Another stumbling block was Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. At the time of Theatre-in-Limbo's inception, provocateur Ludlam was the chief practitioner of Theatre of the Ridiculous, a queer theatre movement that had burst forth with Jack Smith's 1963 film Flaming Creatures. Writes Elliott of the Ridiculous credo:

It wasn't necessarily concerned with gay subjects; it was a gay aesthetic... It mocked conventional values and pretenses and undermined traditional gender roles and political categories... [It parodied] high and low literary and theatrical forms of the past, especially pop culture. Everything from Christopher Marlowe to Maria Montez movies to I Love Lucy could be recycled into the Ridiculous.

Busch had acted at one point in a Ludlam production, but there was apparently some ongoing friction between the two playwrights. Throughout Theatre-in-Limbo's history, critics compared Busch with Ludlam in an unfavorable way countless times. They saw his work as having less literary and artistic merit than Ludlam's, as being merely silly, as lacking political bite. Elliott concedes that the original version of Vampire Lesbians "was not really a play so much as two tenuously related sketches in the Ridiculous style." But he adds that–unlike the plays of Ludlam and another Ridiculous playwright, Ronald Tavel–Busch's creation "had the semblance of a plot."

Vampire Lesbians of Sodom was a resounding success, eventually migrating to the Provincetown Playhouse in the West Village, where it became the longest-running straight play Off-Broadway ("straight" in the sense of "non-musical," that is). It ran for 2,024 performances and kept the company afloat, allowing the troupe to stage new projects.

But the show seems to have been the only title in the Limbo canon with real legs, once the company took a more commercial turn. Both Psycho Beach Party and the ambitious The Lady in Question (initially staged at the WPA Theatre in 1988) made the move to Off-Broadway too, but each lost its entire investment. One reason for that, Elliott suggests, was reflexive homophobia. In the commercially failed Limbo plays, Busch's drag characters had male romantic interests, while in Vampire Lesbians, "the guy in the dress was interested in girls." The latter configuration was somehow more palatable to mainstream customers–including the valuable tourist trade.

An even more overwhelming and heartbreaking problem, of course, was the growing AIDS crisis. The Limbo productions provided gay audiences with some much-needed moments of laughter and joy in the midst of widespread despair, and they contributed to a sense of community. But some colleagues of Busch and Elliott–including actors Meghan Robinson and Robert Carey, along with choreographer Jeff Veazey–all succumbed to the scourge. Theatre-in-Limbo nevertheless soldiered on, beyond the end of the 1980s, wrapping up with Red Scare on Sunset (1991).

In the first part of the book, Elliott's personal journey is glimpsed in detail only here and there. He describes working as personal assistant to librettist Michael Stewart soon after arriving in New York, post-college. He tells about postponing (and eventually ruling out) enrollment in law school in order to continue helping run Theatre-in-Limbo–and he notes his father's frustration with that decision. (The father nonetheless lent support to the company on occasion, and apparently not grudgingly.) In later chapters, Elliott seems to become a more prominent first-person presence. He describes in detail working for Joe Papp at the Public Theater, where he directed the AIDS play Zero Positive as well as a musical stage adaptation of Joe Orton's unproduced screenplay for the Beatles, Up Against It.

He also tells of the gradual falling off of his personal and professional relationship with Busch, including his disappointment when the playwright turned to other directors for post-Limbo projects.

Throughout, Elliott speaks respectfully and sometimes warmly of the playwright/star who was once such a huge part of his life. But he makes it clear that he and Busch are very different sorts of people:

The joy [Busch] took in being the star, center stage, was palpable... He once remarked that he couldn't understand anyone who didn't want to be famous. Celebrity was always part of his goal.

Not so for Elliott, who eventually turned to a life in academia and moved to New Jersey, teaching theatre at Rutgers University.

The contrasting temperaments of the two men appear to be reflected in the styles of their respective books. Leading Lady is a marvelous confection–a series of mostly short, anecdotal chapters that lend even the dankest, dingiest corners of the Limbo Lounge a glamourous sheen. Beyond Ridiculous is a carefully constructed history of the Limbo story, with personal accounts and insights that are sometimes almost like sidebars.

In the introduction to his book, Elliott writes: "Charles often refers to himself as an anecdotist, and he likes to frame the Theatre-in-Limbo as a fairy tale." A fairy tale is almost precisely what Leading Lady is.

Elliott claims in the introduction that Beyond Ridiculous is intended as both a well-documented history and a personal memoir. While twining those two approaches into a single, cohesive narrative makes for a few rough edges, Kenneth Elliott has pulled it off, and nicely.

Note: A few black-and-white illustrations are scattered throughout Elliott's book, but there are no glossy photos. An appendix lists all Theatre-in-Limbo productions, as well as Off-Broadway transfers, with cast lists and other production information.

Beyond Ridiculous: Making Gay Theatre with Charles Busch in 1980s New York
By Kenneth Elliott
210 pages
University of Iowa Press:
Publication Date: November 2, 2023
ISBN: 978-1609389192
Paperback / Kindle Edition