For the holidays, we’re doing a little show about vampires, werewolves, and an Egyptian Mummy. It’s a mystery set in a grand old country house out there on the moors. There’s a servant named Nicodemus, a housekeeper named Jane, both waiting on Lord Edgar and his new wife Lady Enid. Several other characters make their entrances, usually unannounced. You may think you have seen this show before, and you have. It’s a pastiche of every old mystery/horror movie you ever saw, with special inspiration from Alfred Hitchock’s classic film, Rebecca. On the other hand, I promise you there is nothing quite like The Mystery of Irma Vep.
The play is the brainchild of Charles Ludlam, one of the very few great geniuses of the late twentieth century American theater. His career was not a long one. He was born in 1943, and died in 1987, of AIDS. His gay life was never a secret, and his queerness was a continuous inspiration for his theatre—but not the only one. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Ludlam never addressed gay themes in a realistic way, the way of most American theater. He created, instead, his own very distinctive theatre company, a theater he called The Ridiculous Theatre. The name was inspired by the critic Brendan Gill, who wrote after seeing one of Ludlam’s plays, “this isn’t farce. This isn’t absurd. This is ridiculous.”
And what does that mean, exactly? If you know Ludlam’s work (and most people don’t) you begin to understand. Ludlam loved the old theatrical forms. He loved gothic mysteries, preposterous opera, old movies, nineteenth century melodrama—the good old theatrical stuff leaping from the stage before theater got tied down by realism. In Ludlam’s dramatic imagination the old forms were preserved, but with a difference—a difference partly inspired by Ludlam’s acceptance of his own queerness and his huge histrionic appetite. He wanted to play everything, regardless of gender. If men played the great female roles of Shakespeare, why couldn’t they play the great female roles of the 19th century too? His greatest performance, the stuff of legend, was Marguerite, the tubercular courtesan with the heart of gold in The Lady of the Camellias. It was very silly, of course. He was not a small man, and his Parisian gown revealed his hairy chest. But his Camille was not a Monty Python spoof. It was not a drag show. Before each performance, Ludlam said he had to convince himself he was beautiful. Then he went on stage, flirted, sacrificed everything for love, and then, tragically, he died. Some nights the mascara ran down his cheeks in his own tears. Some nights the audience was crying too. This wasn’t exactly straightforward nineteenth century melodrama. And it wasn’t just farce either. It was ridiculous.
Today’s slang use of the word, often deployed to describe something astounding, captures some of the flavor of Ludlam. He said he called his work ridiculous because “the only ideas that interest me are paradoxes. . . the seeming impossibility of resolution.” For instance, a tragic heroine with a hairy chest who makes you laugh, and makes you cry. Though full of exaggeration, Ludlam never wanted to merely mock the old theater forms he played with. He was never primarily satirical. “We call ourselves the Ridiculous Theatre Company,” he said, “which means we are ridiculous. We are not pointing a finger at others and saying they’re ridiculous. We are the buffoons.”
In a famous manifesto, Ludlam gave devotees of the Ridiculous their instructions: "Treat the material in a madly farcical manner without losing the seriousness of the theme. Show how paradoxes arrest the mind. Scare yourself a bit.” With Ludlam, the ridiculous approaches the sublime.
In his own practice, Ludlam was remarkably prolific. He wrote nearly three dozen plays, most of them performed in his small theater in Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village. Increasingly they featured Ludlam himself, and his lover, Everett Quinton, an equally ridiculous actor who has carried on brilliantly after Ludlam’s death. All of the plays were sensational, but he had only one one break-out hit, The Mystery of Irma Vep. The show has become, in the words of one critic, “a sneaky all American classic.” According to the infallible Wikipedia, it was the most performed play in the country nine years ago, and it’s also the longest running play ever produced in Brazil ( I can’t begin to tell you how much I would love to see a Brazilian Irma Vep). The reasons for its success anywhere are not hard to find. The play requires only two actors, playing seven roles of both sexes, which is engaging to begin with. Everyone loves a good vampire play. And even more people love a vampire spoof. I should add the play is also wonderfully plotted, always active, a little scary, and very funny.
Irma Vep is subtitled, “a penny dreadful”—a reference to the sensationally lurid pulp novels of the Victorian era. This old fashioned atmosphere of gaslight, fog, shadows, Egyptian toboacco and cheap menace is exactly what you should expect to find the next time you come to the Bon Vivant Theater. But all that simply sets the stage for what the play most requires: two wonderfully comic actors. The last time we did the play, back in Dwire Theatre twelve years ago, Christopher Lowell and Tom Paradise were our guys, and you could hardly do better. Chris has since become America’s favorite Ben Franklin, and he’s as good a Ben Franklin as there is. But you should have seen his Nicodemus. And his Lady Enid. And –well, I can’t give everything away. As for Tom, you should have seen his Jane. His Lord Edgar was very fine, but his Jane was beautiful. We had a lovely Romanian student living with us at the time who was also dressing backstage. She is not gay, and not, so far as I know, a vampire. She liked Tom. But she loved his Jane. Tom might have gotten very far with Lucia if he had never taken off his wig and maid’s uniform.
This time around, The Mystery of Irma Vep features Bob Rais and Michael Kane. You may remember Bob as Touchstone in As You Like It the summer before last. He was exactly the sort of clown Hamlet complains about, an actor who is out of control and threatening to run away with the show. Bob very nearly did run away with As You Like It, because he’s always laugh out loud funny. In rehearsal, every time he showed the country bumpkin William how he was going to kill him 150 different ways everyone in the room would stop whatever they were doing. Perhaps you don’t know how rare this is in the theatre, where if you’ve seen it once or twice that’s enough. But even those who had seen the scene a dozen times would look up when Bob came on because he was still going to be right there in the moment, and he was going to make you happy.
Michael Kane is slighter than Bob— not quite as physically or vocally imposing. But his pliancy is astonishing, and he’s certifiably loony. Our audiences may remember him from last season’s The Lying Kind, where he played a seriously confused and challenged member of the London constabulary. There are actors who somehow know what do when they are trying to pretend they are not hiding a crazed chiuahua under their helmets, and Michael is one of them. It’s a rare breed, and Michael’s performance in that moment and many more won him a well deserved best actor award from the Pikes Peak Arts Council.
As of this writing, we have just begun our rehearsals, and I can’t remember when I’ve been so eager to go to work. Michael and Bob aren’t just funny men (though I don’t know any funnier). They are also intelligent, brave, with extraordinary instincts and beautiful souls. They are beyond charming—they are adorable. They will do anything. They will be worth seeing night after night after night. I wish the ghost of Charles Ludlam could come see them. I’m hoping that he will, and when it’s over he’ll say, “I’ve seen some amazing theatre in my life, but that was ridiculous!”