An extravagantly constructed comedy, Valhalla offers a comic and affecting look at two disparate and passionate individuals, both searching for a life of operatic beauty. King Ludwig II was the real-life 1860’s ruler known as “The Mad King of Bavaria” – whose love of grandiloquent beauty manifested itself in the eventually self-destructive folly of building a series of fairytale castles before being declared mad. As if this weren’t fertile enough material, Rudnick dovetails this with a yarn about a similarly wired but not nearly so privileged young man, James Avery, a dangerously precocious 1940’s teenager marooned amidst the brown wallpaper and pink chenille bedspreads of Dainsville, Texas. Rudnick, with his trademark wit, intertwines Ludwig’s and James’s adventures in sex, war, glory, and architecture, and movingly charts the consequences of their obsession with the extraordinary.
Beyond its non-stop stream of scurrilous one-liners and uber-speedy costume changes in its century-spanning world, there’s something very serious going on in Valhalla.
“There’s a tradition in the gay world of beauty worship for its own sake,” Rudnick points out. “You can see that everywhere from Oscar Wilde to Robert Mapplethorpe. At times that aesthetic is quite decadent, this sense of the sheer ecstasy of beauty you can maybe see in a Caravaggio painting or something. There are plenty of graduate dissertations that look at why the gay world has such a fixation on beauty, but I don’t think that’s just about gay men either.”
Valhalla may be a different kind of epic, but its irreverent and quick-fire take on its source material has left some audiences
slack-jawed with outrage.
“Some people feel it goes too far,” says Rudnick, “but it’s actually a play that’s about going too far. That sometimes upsets and confuses people, but both of those reactions have always struck me as unshakeable goods. Some people were suspicious about the play, and thought it wasn’t quite healthy or wholesome. But it’s not a play about people on the block. It’s about people living to extremes.”
“I wanted to write something for people who’d never heard of Ludwig, but who could still feel for the characters, even though they might not necessarily like them. I like to get people to laugh against their better judgment, so by the end of the play they can maybe see something bigger going on that’s about artists who go too far out to the edge. There’s a big tradition of dandyism as well, which you can see in everyone from Russell Brand to Mick Jagger, to Leigh Bowery to Isabella Blow to Lady Gaga. There’s a little bit of Ludwig in all of them.”