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LA Theater Review

The Artificial Jungle

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Charles Ludlam, the iconic founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York, who died of AIDS in 1987, created a singular style of campy, highly theatrical farce in which he generally played an outrageous female character. Ludlam's work as a writer and as a performer was widely praised and was groundbreaking not only for its openly gay tone but also for its avant-garde aesthetic. "The Artificial Jungle" was Ludlam's final play and is a mélange of film noir and B-movie scenarios and characters.

In it, Chester Nurdiger (Rich Hutchman) runs a pet shop on the Lower East Side along with his wife, Roxanne (Bernadette Sullivan), and his mother (Michael Halpin). Chester and his mother are overly devoted to each other, while Roxanne is deeply unhappy with her lot in life. When young hunk Zachary (Michael Loomis) appears on the scene and is hired to help around the shop, Roxanne sets her sights on seducing Zachary, killing her husband, and leaving the pet shop behind forever.

In typical Ludlam fashion, there is much heaving of chests, theatrical exclamation, and melodramatic intrigue. Ludlam spoofs film noir, Roger Corman movies, and lots of other targets along the way. The plot is thin and contrived, which is exactly what Ludlam was going for. However, like much of his work, it depended heavily on the performance of Ludlam to project the ridiculous and outrageous tone of the play. Halpin does a terrific job as the doting mother, and Hutchman is energetic and crazy as the son. Sullivan is also excellent as the scheming wife, and Loomis is solid as the innocent boyfriend. Still, the Ludlam magic is conspicuously absent, partly because of the time-bound nature of the material. Ludlam and other avant-garde farceurs have had such an important impact on mainstream comedy that much of what was groundbreaking in the 1960s and '70s is familiar today.

Director Randee Trabitz is loyal to the spirit of Ludlam's farce—perhaps too much so. Ludlam's work was about attitude and innuendo on the surface, but it also had a deeper current that established an almost conspiratorial relationship with the audience, who reveled in the naughtiness and the taboo-busting aspects of his work. With fewer taboos to break these days, the challenge of a director is in re-creating that special feeling. Despite a commendable effort, this production falls a little short.

Presented by Buzzworks Theatre Company at Lounge Theatre 1, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Sept. 17-Nov. 6. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (323) 960-7863. www.plays411.com/jungle.

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