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Good, Kinky Fun

“The Mystery of Irma Vep” at Hartford Stage

Charles Ludlam’s plays are ridiculous—and I mean that literally. Before his death in of AIDS 1987, the playwright and drag queen became the doyenne of the style he helped pioneer, Theater of the Ridiculous. The comedies he wrote, directed and starred in lampoon every conceivable literary and theatrical convention, usually several at once. In addition to stylistic parody, they toy with sexual identity. Ludlam himself was brilliant in drag, and his plays frequently cast men in women’s roles and vice versa.

But Ludlam’s shows are more than kinky spoofs. His ransacking of the dramatic past, from Shakespeare to Moliere to melodrama to burlesque to movies and back to a continuing passion for Shakespeare, gave a curious respectability to the Ridiculous genre. His work, taken as a whole, is at once a gleeful trashing of dramatic styles and a loving if cockeyed retrospective of the entire history of entertainment.

Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company was made up of friends, freaks, enthusiasts and people who wandered in off the street. They had hippie names like Black-Eyed Susan and camp names like Mario Montez and Gare de la Pissoir. The unabashedly tacky productions they mounted underscored the plays’ improvisational spirit and sense of smutty fun.

The conventions of Gothic horror have provided material for generations of mass-market novelists and B-movie makers. The fog-shrouded moor, the mysterious mansion, the howl of the werewolf, are all fixtures in the popular imagination. Some would argue that the horror genre has become its own parody. But in “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” Ludlam took the form several, well, Ridiculous steps further.

The play is subtitled “A Penny Dreadful”—one of those illustrated thrillers of the Victorian era, half novel and half comic book, maudlin and melodramatic. It takes its cue from Daphne DuMaurier’s creepy romance “Rebecca”—the new wife oppressed by the lingering memory of the dead wife and by the contempt of the faithful housekeeper, with hints of murder and the supernatural. Then the play goes on to gather up a full complement of horror movie themes, including ancient curses, spooky omens, werewolves, vampires, and a mummy’s tomb.

“Irma Vep” is a parody with a gimmick. All the roles, half of them women, are played by two male actors. This makes for a hilarious set of broad caricatureizations and a breathtaking stampede of near-instant costume changes.

The main characters are all connected to Mandacrest, a gloomy mansion on the edge of a murky English moor. James Lecesne plays Lord Edgar, a bouncy upper-class twit in tweeds and spats, and the jealous housekeeper, Jane Twisden, a sour spinster with an icy demeanor and a helmet of stiff curls. Jeffrey T. Roberson is not only weird, lecherous, hunchbacked Nicodemus, the all-purpose butler-and-swineherd, and an Egyptian tomb robber straight out of Indiana Jones, he’s also Lady Enid, a simpering flower with the build of a linebacker.

The plot of “Irma Vep” is far too complex to describe, and really too silly to bother with. Suffice it to say that Mandacrest and its new mistress, Lady Enid, are haunted—perhaps literally—by the memory of Lord Edgar’s first wife, Irma Vep; that there is something mysterious out there on the heath; that Nicodemus is hiding A Terrible Secret; and that Lord Edgar’s interest in lycanthropy and Egyptology may hold the key to the mystery.

Lecesne’s and Roberson’s physical and vocal quick-changes are so effective that some Hartford Stage patrons have reportedly been fooled by the joke bios of two fictional actresses in the playbill. Which is too bad for them, because seeing the actors exit and then reenter 30 seconds later as someone else is half the fun. The other half is the play’s promiscuous send-up of every Gothic cliché, accompanied by a nonstop cascade of outrageously bad jokes.

Indeed, in a play that thrives on shameless humor, director Michael Wilson is a little too restrained. He passes up some juicy opportunities for ad libs and sight gags and lets the pace slacken a little too often.

The play’s self-mockery is mirrored in Jeff Cowie’s set, which looks like painted flats pretending to be the Mandacrest library. A semi-circle of footlights downstage and a gilded proscenium arch deftly suggest a Victorian music hall. Alejo Vietti’s costumes are lavish recreations of the gaslight era, as well as marvels of quick-change engineering.

Later this season Hartford Stage will be making some serious dramatic statements from the classical canon and the contemporary stage. But the company is starting off the 2004 season with a show that delivers nothing more—or less—than good, kinky fun.

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