The Bizarro World of Ryan Landry

“When I was young, I was very into comic books,” recalls playwright Ryan Landry. “Superman would often visit a ‘Bizarro World’ where everything was the same, except that the characters were like sculptures made of lead and very roughly cut. It was an alternative universe that ran parallel to the normal one, the one that ‘normal’ people existed in. I think that’s who I am. I am the ‘Bizarro’ playwright.” Inhabiting an uncanny frontier between adaptation and satire, Landry’s work is frequently hilarious, often unsettling, but always indisputably bizarre.

As an aspiring painter in New York City, Landry attended a performance by Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. In Ludlam’s work, high art and pop culture collided, shattering the conventions of genre and gender in the process. “I went, and I never left after that,” he recalls. “Never. I had come home.” Captivated by the madcap aesthetic of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Landry now understood the kind of stories he wanted to tell.

From drag sketches in nightclubs, he progressed to acting and staging the plays of others, including Ludlam. But the pursuit of his own vision led him to create original work and form a company — The Gold Dust Orphans — to produce it. The Orphans quickly acquired a certain notoriety. “Actors avoided us like the plague,” Landry reports. “I suppose they thought they’d turn into hookers and cocaine addicts the minute they entered the room.”

Soon, however, The Orphans began garnering critical accolades. In The Boston Globe, Louise Kennedy lauded them for creating a “theatre that is not only hugely entertaining, but also offers a sharp and consistent perspective on the world. An Orphans show can make you laugh almost painfully hard — then get you thinking hard, too, even as you’re still gasping for breath.”

Landry’s showmanship lives in his writing. From the start, he has been fascinated with reinventing popular tales in ways that gleefully subvert expectations. The titles often speak for themselves: Pussy on the House (Landry’s version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), How Mrs. Grinchley Swiped Christmas, and even Rosemary’s Baby — The Musical!

Over time, however, Landry began to recognize a kinship between his usual source material and more traditional classics, leaving the latter equally open to adaptation. These endeavors expressed the latent darkness that has always informed his humor, in works like A T-Stop Named Denial (Landry’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire) and Death of a Saleslady.

Defining these plays as mere mash- ups, however, ignores the immersive theatricality that is their trademark. In a variety of venues, most recently the basement of the Fenway nightclub Machine, Landry has dreamed up vast spectacles for tiny stages. Using flat, wooden scenery and simple puppetry, he conjures worlds that are flat only in their dimensions. In the best of Landry’s work, he deconstructs an artificial onscreen world so that we are forced to reconsider our own. For instance, the dark gender politics and Oedipal overtones of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds swoop to the fore in Landry’s adaptation, The Gulls.

For “M”, however, the scope of a Huntington production demanded a different approach. “I knew Peter [DuBois] needed me to go further,” Landry says. “I needed to challenge myself. I had to do something that I thought was totally original even within an adaptation.” Complacency — either on the part of the creators or the audience — had to be avoided no matter what. “The source material must be held up to the light . . . every single frame . . . I have to take the road never traveled or there would be no surprises.”

Landry’s “never traveled road” may seem radical to devotees of the Fritz Lang original. “I said to myself, ‘How do you take something like M and wedge a completely opposite story into it?’ To me, the ‘Bizarro’ opposite of M would be a romantic comedy. And so that is what I did. That was the challenge I set for myself.”

A vintage love story injected into the heart of a macabre masterpiece might result in an easy parody in the hands of some artists. But Landry insists his work is more tribute than takeoff. “What has been my main source of inspiration from the film?”, he asks rhetorically. “Absolutely every frame of it.”

— Sam Lasman & Charles Haugland

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