Everett Quinton, a versatile mainstay of the downtown theater scene in New York as an actor, director and, for decades, leader of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, died on Monday in Brooklyn. He was 71.
The cause was glioblastoma, a fast-moving cancer, Mr. Quinton’s friend Julia Campanelli said, speaking on behalf of his sister Mary Ann Quinton.
Mr. Quinton was especially adept at playing women, including the nasty stepmother in “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” which toured the country early in this century. But he took on a range of roles male and female, onstage and occasionally on television or in films — in Oliver Stone’s prison drama “Natural Born Killers” (1994), he was an unpleasant deputy warden.
It was a career he had not been expecting in 1975 when he met Charles Ludlam, a playwright, actor and director who had founded the Ridiculous company (one of several in the era that worked the campy, gender-bending genre known as Theater of the Ridiculous) in 1967 in Greenwich Village, and who was a dynamic part of the avant-garde theater world.
“I was just cruising Christopher Street on a cold February night,” Mr. Quinton recalled in a 2001 interview with The New York Times. “He gave me his phone number but I lost it. I thought his name was Steven. Six months later, that August, I was back on Christopher Street and he walked out of a restaurant and said to me, ‘You do exist.’ From then on we were together.”
The two became partners in life and in the theater, where Mr. Quinton designed costumes, served as assistant stage manager and, in a 1976 show called “Caprice,” took to the stage.
“I was the ballerina who got kidnapped,” he told The Daily News of New York in 1993, remembering that first role. “I knew I’d found my niche.”
He played all sorts of roles in Ridiculous productions, including the title character in Mr. Ludlam’s “Beauty and the Beast”-like fairy tale “The Enchanted Pig,” which ran for months in 1979 at the Ridiculous theater on Sheridan Square.
“Everett Quinton personates the oinker as a most sympathetic fellow,” Don Nelsen wrote in a review in The Daily News.
The two had a sensational success in 1984 with Mr. Ludlam’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep” (the name is an anagram for “vampire”), a parody of Victorian penny dreadfuls in which they played all the roles, male and female, switching deftly and rapidly. (Mr. Quinton held down four — a maid, an aristocrat named Lord Edgar, a monster/vampire and a woman hidden in the manor house.)
“Each character is such a complete, precise comic creation that it often takes one’s breath away to watch the actors move from one role to the next (and back again) with nary a pause,” Frank Rich wrote in his review in The Times. “In ‘Irma Vep,’ Mr. Ludlam and Mr. Quinton have raised the Ridiculous to the sublime.”
Mr. Ludlam and Mr. Quinton performed the show more than 330 times. But it turned out to be the peak of Mr. Ludlam’s career — he died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987. Mr. Quinton soldiered on with the Ridiculous theater, restaging some of Mr. Ludlam’s works while gradually expanding the offerings. By 1994, Mel Gussow, writing in The Times, found that Mr. Quinton had put his own stamp on the company.
“While respecting the theatrical legacy of his mentor and longtime companion,” Mr. Gussow wrote, “Mr. Quinton has given the company his own irreverent signature: Ludlamania has been Quintonized.”
He kept Ridiculous Theatrical going until 1997, by which time it had lost its Sheridan Square space and was, like other small theater companies, done in by high costs in an increasingly gentrifying part of town. Mr. Quinton, though, continued to direct and perform, including in “Drop Dead Perfect,” which played at the Theater at St. Clement’s in Manhattan in 2014 (and returned for an encore the next year).
“In a sweet 1950s peach crocheted dress and matching bolero, Everett Quinton has never looked lovelier,” Anita Gates began her review in The Times.
Sometimes Mr. Quinton would try roles first played by Mr. Ludlam. In 1998, at the West Side Theater in Midtown Manhattan, he directed a revival of “Irma Vep” and starred, this time taking the roles Mr. Ludlam had played (while Stephen DeRosa played the parts Mr. Quinton had originated). In 1990 he staged Mr. Ludlam’s “Camille,” a play loosely based on an Alexandre Dumas novel, taking on the role of Marguerite, which Mr. Ludlam had played in the 1973 premiere.
Cheryl Reeves-Hayes was also part of the 1990 cast. “Whenever he was onstage as Marguerite,” she said by email, “I would hurry up and change so I could sit in the wings and watch him perform. He was mesmerizing to watch, and I learned so much from him as an actor.”
Ramona Ponce started designing costumes for Ridiculous productions in 1991. Her first assignment was for a 10-minute entertainment Mr. Quinton was staging for a trade council that was meeting at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. The audience was not appreciative.
“As soon as they saw the men in drag onstage they started throwing rolls,” she said by email. “Right there in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel ballroom. Rolls!!
“Everett was furious, humiliated, traumatized. He turned on his heel and stalked out through the kitchen, head held high, topped by a giant mobcap, in Victorian drag. After that we couldn’t even mention the show, or the name of the hotel, for a decade after. But the show was magical and strange and daring and fun, all the things I wanted in life.”
Everett James Quinton Jr. was born on Dec. 18, 1951, in Brooklyn. His father was a postal worker, and his mother, Elizabeth Frances Reardon Quinton, was a homemaker.
After serving in the Air Force in Thailand, Mr. Quinton attended Hunter College for two years, but he had no thought of a theater career.
“My only experience with the theater was playing Rip Van Winkle in the Cub Scouts,” he told The Daily News in 1993.
Meeting Mr. Ludlam introduced him to a whole new world of possibilities. “I ran away and joined the circus” was how he put it in the 2001 interview with The Times.
Although the Ridiculous troupe was known for parodies, cross-dressing and the occasional pig costume, Mr. Quinton said he gradually learned that outlandishness didn’t preclude the need for finding a character and making her, him or it real.
“Even grotesques have feelings,” he told The Times in 1994.
After Mr. Ludlam’s death, Mr. Quinton, who lived in the West Village, had a long-term relationship with Michael Van Meter, a member of the Ridiculous company who died in 2007 of complications of AIDS. In addition to his sister Mary, he is survived by another sister, Elizabeth Frances Quinton, and four brothers, Matthew, John Paul, Thomas and Timothy.
Ms. Ponce said Mr. Quinton was well versed in and wary of theatrical superstitions, including the one that forbids whistling in a theater and the one that warns against mentioning the play “Macbeth” for fear of incurring a curse — neither of which she was aware of before working for him.
“When I started whistling backstage, he came flying out from the dressing room and demanded that I leave the theater, walk around the park outside and say a line from Shakespeare before I could come back in,” she said. “He didn’t wait for me to mention the Scottish play — he decided he’d better tell me about that one before something really bad happened.”
Mr. Quinton’s friend William Engel, an artist, noted that Mr. Quinton had a deeply spiritual side. He said the two of them worked together on many pageants for Grace & St. Paul’s Church on the Upper West Side.
“No one could be more welcoming at the Lord’s table than Everett Quinton,” he said by email. “Especially the L.G.B.T.Q. community.”
Ms. Reeves-Hayes said Mr. Quinton introduced her to that same church. When they took their production of “Camille” to London in 1991, she said, “Ev would be my church buddy, and we visited a couple of churches in the city.”
On other walkabouts, they indulged a different tradition. They both admired old cartoon and comic strip characters, especially Krazy Kat, who loved a mouse, Ignatz. The mouse would constantly hurl bricks at Krazy, which she interpreted as a sign of affection.
“So,” Ms. Reeves-Hayes said, “whenever we would see a cute guy, one of us would ask, ‘Got a brick?’”