Ludlam’s Tamberlaine is already the president of Earth when the play begins. But his insatiable appetite for power leads him to invade all the other planets in the solar system, starting with Mars, which is ruled by Bajazeth (Lenys Samá) and his queen, Zabina (Mr. Quinton, who also portrays Zabina’s incestuous princely brother, Cosroe).
Accompanied by his bodacious first lady, Alice (Brian Belovitch), Tamberlaine rapes, pillages, castrates, decapitates and turns the monarchs of the universe he lets live into personal sex slaves. (Warning to the squeamish: Polymorphous perversity ain’t pretty in the Ludlam cosmos.)
Alas, it is never enough. And Tamberlaine, after taking time to see a “degenerate” Charles Ludlam play, is left to lament the lack of fresh worlds to conquer before arriving at a very untidy demise.
Extracting that plotline for you wasn’t easy. (You’re welcome.) To discern it, a theatergoer must peer through a thick and tangled forest of cross-cultural references, stratospheric over-emoting and jokes (and X-rated sex) raunchy enough to bring a blush to the jaded cheeks of today’s most lascivious powermongers.
“Conquest,” which runs a little over an hour and a half, has nothing like the formal symmetry or coherence that Ludlam would bring to his later works, like “Camille” and “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” But it does reflect, almost blindingly, the central Ludlam tenet of creative line blurring — between classical and pop, beautiful and ugly, sacred and profane, male and female, professional and amateur.
It has also been given an exceptionally lavish production — or trash-lavish anyway — with planets that dangle like chandeliers over Robert Savina’s sprawling set and improbable costumes by Ramona Ponce that would be the envy of Lady Gaga. Even if you find your eyes glazing (or your gag reflex overworking) from the too-muchness of it all, the cast seems to be having a high old time.
And why should it not? These performers get to simulate the goriest of deaths, assume every position in the Kama Sutra and then some, and crib madly from sources like “The Wizard of Oz,” classic melodrama, Jacobean revenge tragedy, doo-wop music and vintage burlesque. The dialogue includes such immortal phrases as “A poisoned wedding cake, heavy with irony” and “Let him enter my chamber, this boy from Jupiter.”
Mr. Quinton projects disciplined dementia in both his roles, intoning the interjection “Sufferin’ Sappho” with the sibilance of Sylvester the Cat and majestically declaiming the mock-Shakespearean couplet, “I say to Jove, thy will be done./No more nookie ’til Tamberlaine is slain and overcome.”
There’s plenty of real Shakespeare, too, as Mr. Neale’s winningly wild-eyed Tamberlaine borrows freely from the characters of Macbeth, Richard III, Titus Andronicus and, above all, one wacky Prince of Denmark. The final scene of “Conquest” takes the wholesale carnage of Act V of “Hamlet” and multiplies it to the nth degree.
Death isn’t dignified in “Conquest,” but it isn’t terminal either. On the contrary, it keeps happening over and over again, until you’re reluctant to believe anyone, no matter how eviscerated, is down for the count.
The same would appear to be true of Ludlam’s dated but strangely prophetic early theater work. Love ’em or hate ’em, his colliding queens fit right into today’s climate of farcical tragedy, where it’s often hard to tell a scream from a laugh.