Before he died of AIDS in 1987, Charles Ludlam had cornered the market on intelligent parodies of theatrical and operatic literature. Writing for his Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York City and usually appearing in his plays, often in drag, Ludlam joined his deep knowledge of the modern art world to a flair for silly, deliberately tasteless, politically incorrect and wild humor.
The results were unlike anything else in the theater, with the possible exception of some of the comedies of Christopher Durang. In a typical farce like Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde, Ludlam took a model text — in this case Molière's Le Bougeois Gentilhomme — and turned it into an attack on the pretensions of modern artists who declare themselves to be "post-talent" and modern patrons who can't write enough checks for these frauds and poseurs.
In Galas, his send-up of the career of Maria Callas, his self-pitying heroine (whom he portrayed) is tied to the millionaire Aristotle Plato Socrates Odysseus and served by a maid who can, by looking in the diva's throat, estimate the number of times she'll sing Norma. Other Ludlam plays spoofed Hamlet, Wagner's Ring and Camille. Seldom in contemporary theater has the impulse toward satire been combined with such a deep appreciation of the works being satirized.
Now Tampa's Stageworks is offering Ludlam's most famous farce, 1984's The Mystery of Irma Vep (which I saw in a preview), and if the subjects being parodied — melodramas of film and literature — aren't exactly on the minds of most 21st-century spectators, the production is still a likable inroad to the world of an American original.
Irma Vep — an anagram for "vampire" — is about Lord Edgar Hilcrest, who once was married to the late Lady Irma but has now brought a new wife, Lady Enid, to his estate at Mandacrest. But all is not well at Mandacrest: For one, Lord Edgar can't forget his departed first wife. And more threatening, there's a wolf named Victor loose on the heath, a wolf who was raised from puphood by Lady Irma and who may have killed Irma and Edgar's little son.
Or was it — as Edgar's maidservant Jane insists — a werewolf that murdered the child, leaving the innocent Victor falsely accused? When a mysterious figure briefly kidnaps Lady Enid and bites off the leg of Nicodemus the swineherd, the plot thickens considerably. Then Edgar admits that his first wife may have become a vampire and sets off to Egypt to investigate the sarcophagus of "She Who Sleeps but Will One Day Wake."
With all these plot twists combining and colliding, and with quotes from Ibsen, Shakespeare, Omar Khayyam, Poe and Oscar Wilde tumbling out of the characters' mouths, the stage is set for a very busy climax. At Mandacrest, it turns out, things are never as they seem.
Now, as useful as this plot is for all sorts of comedy, high and low, the greatest fun Irma Vep affords is in allowing us to watch a mere two actors — in this case, the talented Derek Baxter and Larry Buzzeo — play all of its eight parts. Baxter and Buzzeo have the exhausting (but sometimes very funny) task of changing costumes in mere seconds, putting on and removing wigs and masks at a moment's notice, turning up unexpectedly as an Egyptian guide, an ardent princess, the face in a painting and a truly ridiculous werewolf.
If there's an art to this play, there's also a sport: Can these athletes of the theater get off stage and then back on time? Can they really keep so many different characters distinct? Baxter is superb: As housemaid Jane, he's opinionated and properly modest; and as Lord Edgar he's fearless, noble and resolute. Buzzeo's also very effective as the randy, slobbering Nicodemus, the highfalutin, nervous Enid, the ever-helpful guide Alcazar and the long-mummified Pev Amri.
Director Karla Hartley insists that her actors exaggerate every impersonation, and that turns out to be just right. As every comic knows, excessive seriousness can be very, very funny.
R. T. Williams' set of a somber drawing room backed by French doors is lovingly detailed — it calls to mind the Haunted Mansion at Disney World — and Amy Cianci's period costumes are always just excessive enough. Once again, Stageworks brings us a top-rate production of a play that's been ignored by other local theaters.
And yet ... the experience is not wholly satisfying. One reason I've already mentioned: The classic works parodied here, from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights to Hitchcock's Laura, aren't exactly an important part of our modern mindscape. The best satire, whatever its ostensible subject, speaks to us now, about our pretensions, our prejudices, our loves and our fears. But Irma Vep never seems to be about anything more than the books and movies of another era.
And as for the split-second costume- and character-changes, they're delightful for 20 minutes or so, but then we get used to them and start looking elsewhere for our entertainment. There is one very pleasing change of scenery, about halfway through, to an Egyptian tomb and its several surprises. But even this seems mostly aimed at lampooning mummy movies of half a century ago and lacks the relevance and immediacy that we can't help but seek. Finally, Irma Vep, for all its virtues, gives us nothing to think about. It's as fun as a carnival ride and not a lot deeper.
That said, it's a pleasure to find a Ludlam play here in the Bay area. Maybe now other area theaters will take a look at his catalog and offer us further works — say, Bluebeard or Stageblood or Der Ring Gott Ferblonjet. Ludlam's life may have been short, but he managed to carve out a niche in contemporary theater that was his and his alone. If you have yet to become acquainted with him, you can make a good start by paying a call on this well-acted and charmingly ridiculous Irma Vep.