‘Irma Vep’: ‘Rebecca’ Meets ‘Frankenstein’

Mr. Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company was born and nurtured in a time of revolution and change for gay America
Isaac Klein and Trevor Vaughn star in the “The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful,” directed by Kate Mueth at Mulford Rep this month. Durell Godfrey

   It has been a good summer for the silly in the Village of East Hampton. First, Guild Hall gave us theater of the absurd with the Lonny Price-directed “Luv,” and now the Mulford Repertory Theatre gives us theater of the ridiculous with a revival of Charles Ludlam’s Off Broadway hit, “The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful.”
    While not on the level of Mr. Price’s excellent production, if you are prone to laugh at silly things, then get out your picnic basket (the Mulford Farm museum suggests picnicking on the grounds before the 7:30 curtain) and head on over to catch this two-man show, starring Trevor Vaughn and Isaac Klein, as directed by Kate Mueth.
    Mr. Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, founded in 1967, was born and nurtured in a time of revolution and change for gay America. The Stonewall Riots of 1969, arguably the moment that most changed the way the gay and lesbian community interacts with each other in public, happened just yards from the company’s long-time home on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village.
    Seemingly apolitical, but always subversive, Mr. Ludlam was the only member of the founding company to have theatrical training. Though his writing shows an artist steeped in the classics, most of the company’s work, which Mr. Ludlam wrote, directed, and usually performed in, was based thematically not on theater, but on old movies. Men played women, women played men, and there were no boundaries. The plays were built day by day, by rehearsing, talking, and playing. Always playing. The result was organic chaos.
    “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is probably the most accessible of Mr. Ludlam’s works. It is certainly the most produced. He wrote it to play with his long-time lover and partner, Everett Quinton. Sadly, Mr. Ludlam died of AIDS less than three years after the 1984 opening. Fortunately for us, his humor lives on.
    “Irma Vep” has a dose of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” folded into layer upon layer of the early Universal Pictures horror movies. Think Frankenstein, Wolf Man, and the Mummy, complete with the prerequisite over-the-top melodramatic acting. If you want to understand the style, Google “Colin Clive it’s alive” and play a YouTube clip of Mr. Clive shrieking with joy, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” as the Frankenstein monster comes to life in the 1931 classic.
    On its own, the real thing is already campy fun. Seen through the prism of Mr. Ludlam’s mind, it becomes an excuse for silliness and lunacy.
    The plot centers on the newly married Lady Enid (Mr. Klein) and Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Mr. Vaughn), with the former Lady Hillcrest, Irma Vep, looming over Mandacrest mansion from her portrait atop the fireplace. There are wolves, and talk of vampires, and howling in the night.
    The play opens with Jane Trisden (Mr. Vaughn), the faithful maid of the house, talking about the new Lady Hillcrest with Nicodemus Underwood (Mr. Klein), a demented worker on the estate who has a wooden leg. Then the parade of characters begins.
    Both men bite into their multiple roles with gusto. Mr. Vaughn’s Lord Hillcrest really gets to the heart of melodrama. He seems to be channeling Colin Clive himself. Mr. Klein, who is playing the role originated by Mr. Ludlam, is quite adept at rather bizarre off-stage conversations between two characters, both of whom he is playing at the same time while he does a quick change. He too has a good handle on language, important for the Ludlam part. There are homages to Edgar Allen Poe and of course, William Shakespeare.
    And, silly, melodramatic lines. When Lord Hillcrest tells Lady Hillcrest he is going to the morgue, she says, woefully, “Why don’t you just go live at the morgue instead of making a morgue of our home?”
    Jane Trisden lays out a gown for Lady Hillcrest once worn by Irma Vep. Lady Hillcrest asks Jane if she’s sure Lord Hillcrest likes the gown.
    “Positive. He even wore it himself once.”
    My favorite rim-shot line of the night comes from Lady Hillcrest: “It’s a hard thing to marry an Egyptologist and find out he’s hung up on his mummy.”
    The set design is very well executed by Brian G. Leaver, who takes the aesthetic of the barn the theater is in and mixes in German Goth, a la “Vampyr.”
He incorporates the upstage door from the barn, which Ms. Mueth uses for her cast, to great effect. Her choreography of the constant quick changes and entrances and exits is wonderful.
    The production values are quite good. The sound design by Joe Brondo is excellent; the incidental music is well chosen. Lighting, by Sebastian Pazcynski, and costumes, by Yuka Silvera, are also well done.
    There are a couple of bumps in the road. In theater of the absurd, or even the ridiculous, there has to be a bit of self-editing. When, for example, Mr. Klein’s Nicodemus broadly wiped his nose with his hand, then extended the hand to an unwitting Jane Trisden, I was neither grossed out or amused. It was simply a dead moment.
    A little less would be a lot more, especially considering that the play’s running time, including intermission, was about two hours 15 minutes last Friday night. Part of the problem is the opening scene, which drags on too long. In the style of melodrama, Mr. Ludlam incorporated extensive exposition into the early scenes, which, truth be told, could be cut. The audience does not need to be told why the silliness is happening. Just let it flow.
    Once you get past the deadwood, however, there is some silly ridiculousness to be had here. It is good to know that Mr. Ludlam is not forgotten.
    “The Mystery of Irma Vep” plays tonight through Sunday night, with the final two performances Wednesday and next Thursday.