In the mid to late 1970s, one of the seminal figures in gay
theater was Charles Ludlam, who wrote and starred in a number
of well-received productions in which he starred in the leading
female roles in drag. Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater was
headquartered in New York City’s West Village, not far from the
famed Stonewall Bar.
About a decade later, on the other side of town in the lower
East Side, there emerged another individual – coincidentally also
with the first name Charles – who became a well-known and
respected playwright and drag artiste. Charles Busch had grown
up in Westchester County and later lived with a maiden aunt in
Manhattan before attending Northwestern to study theater. Told
he wouldn’t really fit in as a performer, Busch eventually toured
the United States in various one-man shows, playing numerous
roles (including both male and female) before finally finding his
niche at the Limbo Lounge in Alphabet City.
Busch and a group of friends agreed to put on a play he
wrote called “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” and after a couple of
weekends, the group realized that the audience consisted of more
than friends. The show became something of a cult hit and the
group – adopting the name Theater in Limbo – took up permanent
residence. After several shows, the troupe eventually raised enough
money for a commercial off-Broadway transfer and fueled by a
rave review in The New York Times, “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom”
began a five-year run at the Provincetown Playhouse. There were
other hits that followed before the group eventually disbanded.
All of this and more is documented in the terrific nonfiction film
THE LADY IN QUESTION IS CHARLES BUSCH, co-directed
by John Catania and Charles Ignacio. The movie also traces the
roots of Busch’s obsession with vintage movie stars (like Susan
Hayward and Norma Shearer), his love of the operatic, and the ways
in which his work meld the two. The characters he creates and
performs evoke the lost glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age. One
only need to watch any of the abundant clips of the Theater in Limbo
productions that are judiciously included in the film (thanks to
Busch’s vast videotape archive). Additionally, the filmmakers follow
the actor-author as he gradually moves to the mainstream with the
success of his Tony-nominated play “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,”
and how he navigated a health scare that coincided with that success.
THE LADY IN QUESTION IS CHARLES BUSCH is a
must-see for anyone even vaguely interested in theater. It’s both a
wonderful portrait of the emergence of a very unique artist, and a
superlative historical document of a particular time in theatrical history.
Viewed at NewFest at the Loews 34th Street Theater
|Copyright 2005 by C.E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
|The Lady in Question Is Charles Busch