When used in the same sentence, the words "sublime" and "ridiculous" usually imply a one-way journey from a feeling of ecstatic uplift to one of depraved farce. Only very rarely does the voyage from one state to the other happen in reverse: People often talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous, but thoughts of going from the ridiculous to the sublime sound downright perverse.
Yet I traveled in this unlikely direction not once but twice during a recent theatergoing weekend. Having caught San Francisco Opera's production of Gaetano Donizetti's 1835 tragedy Lucia di Lammermoor and Thrillpeddlers' take on Charles Busch's 1984 comedy Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium on consecutive evenings, I now see that these two wildly different theatrical experiences have quite a bit in common — including a shared journey from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Lucia and Theodora seem to have as much business appearing together in this column as a bald soprano does at a convention of hirsute basses: Lucia tells a devastating story about a young woman forced to forget her lover and marry a man she dislikes to advance the political ambitions of her brother; Theodora's heroine is a drag queen who fucks and finagles her way across 6th-century Greece until a Gypsy potion wreaks havoc with her plans. Lucia is a staple of the operatic canon; Theodora is rarely revived. San Francisco Opera's production stars Natalie Dessay, one of the world's foremost divas; local drag queen Jef Valentine headlines Thrillpeddlers' show, which is part of the company's Theatre of the Ridiculous Revival. Lucia runs more than three hours; Theodora barely lasts three-quarters of an hour.
Yet the shows are remarkably similar. Both are based on melodramatic sources featuring exotic locales — The Bride of Lammermoor, Sir Walter Scott's 1819 historical novel set in Scotland during the reign of Queen Anne, and Victorien Sardou's play Théodora of 1884, set in Byzantium in 532. Both offer complex portrayals of female sexuality. Both demand virtuosic performances from their leading ladies. And, perhaps most intriguingly, both start out with a healthy dollop of the ridiculous and end with a dose of the sublime.
As a product of the "ridiculous theater" movement, a mid-20th-century offshoot of Dadaism, Surrealism, and the theaters of Cruelty and the Absurd, Theodora certainly wears its silliness on its sleeve. Sardou wrote Théodora for the great 19th-century stage actor Sarah Bernhardt. Busch, in turn, penned his adaptation to slake his own Bernhardt obsession. In homage to Bernhardt's passion for performing trouser roles and taste for high drama, Busch's play features overblown characters in far-out situations. These include an emperor with a penchant for sticking peacock feathers up male servants' rectums, a princess who keeps her dead father's pancreas and large intestine in an old boot in her closet, and a heroine played by a male actor in drag who, like boy performers in Shakespeare's day, disguises "herself" as a youth to escape the confines of palace life.
The play's dialogue is equally carnivalesque. Busch freely mixes high and low registers for comic effect. "I want justice! It frightens me that my enemies are within my own palace royal," states Theodora pompously after finding her ceremonial robes smeared with feces. When the Emperor Justinian tells Theodora he will rally his watchmen, she suddenly drops the queenly facade and slips into fairground barker mode: "Them guards? My eunuchs have more get-up-and-go." Director Russell Blackwood's slipshod pacing and rhythm prevents some of the lines from achieving their full impact. But the heavily-made-up actors in Thrillpeddlers' scrappy production attack their roles with such aplomb that the dementedness of Busch's narrative shines through the greasepaint anyway. Highlights include a hilarious and surprisingly graceful Gypsy dance performed by a harem of tattooed and pierced blokes in gauzy belly-dancing attire, and Theodora's murderous rampage with a hairpin.
In contrast, Lucia doesn't seem silly at all. Certainly, Donizetti never set out to write a comedy. Yet like many other works within the operatic canon, its premise is hard to take seriously. No matter the size of the budget, the storminess of the denouement, and the star power of the talent, there's still something profoundly nonsensical about a 19th-century Italian opera set in 17th-century Scotland in which performers stride about in kilts, calling each other Arturo and Enrico. To add to the absurdities, I saw SF Opera's captivating production at the War Memorial Opera House in live simulcast at AT&T Park. There's nothing quite like watching a coloratura soprano exchange solemn, clandestine marriage vows with a romantic tenor on a rugged midnight heath while you're scarfing down hotdogs and trying to avoid seagull poop landing on your head to make you contemplate the wonderful weirdness of life.
The fabled mad scene at the end of Donizetti's opera is so over the top that it borders on camp. (The drag opera company Gran Scena has even done a spoof version in falsetto.) But Dessay is such a fiercely charismatic actor that we believe her every blood-stained note. When the French soprano's character unraveled into unruliness at the ballpark the other night, around 23,000 pairs of eyes were glued to that screen. The hotdog stands stopped doing business and the seagulls were nowhere to be seen.
Meanwhile, as bonkers as Theodora is, there's something stately at its center that lends the drag drollery an unexpected air of gravitas. That something, or, rather, that someone, is Valentine's Theodora. Dressed in Fayette Hauser's gorgeous, figure-caressing costumes that alternately make the performer look like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and Robin Hood as he might be played by Tinkerbell, Valentine commands the Hypnodrome's tiny stage like a true empress. In his manifesto for the legendary drag theater troupe, the Ridiculous Theatre Company, actor, playwright, and founder Charles Ludlam states: "Treat the material in a madly farcical manner without losing the seriousness of the theme." Valentine perfectly carries out Ludlam's vision.
In these two very different productions, the ridiculous is ultimately eclipsed by the sublime. The world seems at once beautiful and frightening, familiar and strange thanks to the artistry of divas Dessay and Valentine.