What do you get when you combine two actors, eight parts, and a stew of Gothic theatrical silliness? A whole lot of laughs, when the production is as sharp and clean as that of Bay Street’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”
Created by Charles Ludlam during that final burst of creative, subversive lunacy that characterized the last few years of his life, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is the most revived of his Ridiculous Theatrical Company plays. When done well, as this production is, you can see why.
Mr. Ludlam wrote the play specifically for himself and his longtime companion, Everett Quinton. It was first produced in 1984, just three years before Mr. Ludlam’s untimely death at age 44, after suffering complications caused by the AIDS virus.
In the Bay Street production, David Greenspan plays the parts originally played by Mr. Ludlam, while Tom Aulino plays the parts originally played by Mr. Quinton. Both actors are superb.
Set mostly in Mandacrest Manor, with a side trip to an Egyptian tomb, the delightfully complicated plot has Lady Enid (Mr. Greenspan) trying to supplant the true love in Lord Edgar Hillcrest’s (Mr. Aulino’s) heart, Lady Irma Vep. Above the fireplace, dominating the room, is a portrait of Irma Vep, a la Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.”
Before going any further with the plot, it is worth saying who Mr. Ludlam was, and how he created his theater pieces.
An irreverent young actor with a strong understanding of classic literature, he started his career in New York in the mid-1960s, soon becoming a leader in the city’s theatrical avant-garde. He delighted in combining genres and crossing genders to produce a dizzying series of laughs. Nothing was sacred. His Ridiculous Theatrical Company, founded in 1967, was based in Sheridan Square, just yards away from the scene of the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969.
Before Stonewall, the police in New York City would routinely arrest anyone for being openly gay, particularly if they were looking for a date at a bar. Stonewall was Gay America’s Jackie Robinson moment.
As gays and lesbians pushed the boundaries in the streets, Mr. Ludlam was pushing the boundaries in his small theater. His first hit was “When Queens Collide,” into which he folded Shakespeare, Marlowe, and H.G. Wells, among others.
In “Irma Vep,” we get more Shakespeare, plus Edgar Allen Poe, Hitchcock, and Universal Pictures’ horror movies of the 1930s. The play opens with the maid of the manor, Jane Twisdon (Mr. Aulino) questioning Nicodemus Underwood (Mr. Greenspan), a field hand. Nicodemus is putting the moves, not so successfully, on Jane.
“Give me a little kiss, and I’ll show you how I’m hung,” he says leeringly. “Get away from me with your double entendres,” Jane answers.
That line shows one of Mr. Ludlam’s great strengths, the ability to laugh at himself and what he was doing. He puts the actors through a mind-bending set of costume and character changes, with the actors sometimes playing two characters simultaneously while doing a quick change offstage. Double entendre, frequently of a sexual nature, rules the day.
Later, Jane tries to explain to Lady Enid who the Hillcrests are.
“The Hillcrests go back to, back to,” she says, then pauses. “Well, they’ve been descending for centuries.”
Mandacrest is haunted by werewolves and vampires. In the old Universal “Wolf Man” movies, one of the key moments was the first time the audience would see a man change into a monster, via time-lapse photography. Mr. Greenspan gives up Mr. Ludlam’s version of that change to great effect.
There is an inherent difficulty in staging this play: Mr. Ludlam and Mr. Quinton knew each other intimately and had worked together for many years. Under the skillful direction of Kenneth Elliot, Mr. Aulino and the always vamping Mr. Greenspan have achieved a good measure of internal chemistry.
The second act begins with a trip to an Egyptian tomb by Lord Hillcrest, led by his guide, Alcazar, who pronounces the word sarcophagus, “saco-sogus.” After discovering the mummy of an apparent Egyptian princess, Alcazar makes a hasty exit, saying “Permit me to withdraw and leave you with your newfound lady friend.”
Mr. Greenspan leaves the stage, returning just in time to play Pev Ammi, a large-breasted, dancing mummy.
Something happened in that scene during the Sunday night performance I attended that demonstrated the bond that these two actors have developed in such a short time. Two ropes dropped from the grid down to the stage while Lord Hillcrest and his guide were exploring the tomb. On Sunday, the ropes were tangled when they dropped. It happens. It is live theater.
Lesser actors might have been thrown, but these two simply incorporated it into their action, making a very real moment a very funny one.
Both men play their characters, male and female, with a certain relish, reveling in the silliness of it all without ever losing control. The production values are superb. The set design by John Arnone is haunting Gothic, and his Irma Vep portrait over the fireplace is too cool for words. The set, along with the lighting design by Mike Billings, matches the level of acting note for note. Mark Mariani’s costumes, particularly those for Lady Enid, are perfect, as is the sound design, credited to Aural Fixation. I loved the channeling of Bernard Hermann with a minor-key score in a section of the second act. And once again, Kathy Fabian, in the under-appreciated craft of prop design, shows us why she is one of the best in the business.
As good as it all is, there are external challenges. The first act is too long. The problem, in my eyes, is that Ludlam was very faithful to the melodramatic structure, in which we are given lots of exposition, that, while very funny, can be a bit of a tough sell to people coming off the beach, dinner, and three glasses of wine.
Time is an issue that was clearly wrestled with during previews. The play is written in three acts, but there is only one intermission, so really, it is two acts — a wise move. Total playing time Sunday was a bit over two hours, and that included a lengthy intermission. A mention should be made during the introduction that the play would be in two acts, not three.
In the first act, the audience was a bit tentative, some seemingly unsure of what to make of it all. It was only at the start of the second act that the audience really seemed to get it, and it was smooth sailing from then on.
I’d like to think that, somewhere, Charles Ludlam is smiling.
“The Mystery of Irma Vep” will be at Bay Street through July 28, playing Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 7, with matinees on Wednesday at 2 and Saturday at 4.