Devotees of “It was a dark and stormy night,” cross-dressing (human and animal), bleeding pictures, bawdy humour, voracious vampires and fine acting must make tracks to Studio Arena Theatre’s production of The Mystery of Irma Vep. Drag Queen extraordinaire Charles Ludlam’s three-act play-on-words is as fresh and zany today as at its 1984 première (where Ludlam created four of the seven roles). Think Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Monty Python’s Flying Circus (cue the “Call for Your Dead” sketch!).
The playwright’s note decries that the play “is a full-length quick change act.” All roles are portrayed by two performers. Holy Velcro, pass the wigs! Beginners need not apply.
Buffalo veteran Robert Rutland bounds through the characterization Olympics with considerable skill and panache. As Jane Twisden, Mandacrest Manor’s long-suffering maid, he crafts a persona effused with John Cleese droll-grimace asides and a convincing gruff demeanour for the real “Lady of the House.” When it comes to semi-renowned Egyptologist and country-estate owner Lord Edgar Hillcrest, Rutland is readily believable and especially fine at engendering guffaws during the freeze-frame looks for the lightening-bolt “ahas!” and an unforgettable bit of business around a purposely failed blast of a silver bullet into the resident werewolf. Madcap mayhem is the hallmark of Guy Wagner’s “fight” scenes, stylishly rendered by Rutland as both the Intruder and the “not quite dead” Irma Vep.
It falls to Ray Boucher to take the remaining parts and dig into his feminine side where required. Best of his bunch is the lecherous stablehand Nicodemus Underwood. He’s got the hots for the fairer sex and delights in teasing how he’s “hung,” but his finest stiff limb is a wooden leg (its original torn off while protecting his master from Victor-the-wolf’s greedy jaws of death) that pops up hilariously on demand—a woody of a different bent. His Lady Enid has a chuckle-filled tippy-toe flight pattern, but the vocalization needs to rise a major third to balance butch Jane. Similarly, the accent for Alcazar (Lord Edgar’s tour guide in the bowels of an apparently pristine Sphinx—sadly, the sneeze gag missed its mark) either needs work on consistency or (like the occasional open-back costumes that bring the audience under the backstage tent) be delivered more obviously as a put-on. Still, the cagey Pev Amri is everything that could be asked for, no matter how you decipher her.
Gluing this farcical nonsense together is director Tony Caselli. Tone is the tricky thing when unleashing or harnessing his pair of talented performers. With copious amounts of sight gags (the arrival of Lord Edgar’s hunting bounty is spot-on) and naughty (for the ‘80s) flashes of dialogue (“Virginity is the balloon in the carnival of life. It vanishes with the first prick.”) it’s hard not to let the proceedings descend from the wonderfully whacky to cheap and tiresome. For the most part, Caselli succeeds brilliantly, yet the “Pope” line fails and the foray through the audience begins with promise but slips into talk-show tackiness by the end of the first row.
Vincent Mountain’s Mandacrest Manor set is a marvel of detail, magic (look out: there’s a trick door somewhere) and seems an improvement on Ludlam’s original—shifting the portrait to the opposite side heightens the Act III climax terrifically. In comparison, the mummy’s tomb is more left to the imagination than extensively “dressed,” but the pride of the designers is the seamless transition (which moves the full-size sarcophagus as if on a magic carpet) back to the English estate for the howl-filled dénouement. Marvellous.
Diverting attention or highlighting objects, wayward limbs and knowing looks is John Saunders’ excellent lighting plot. From perfectly timed blackouts to electrifying bolts from above, this production reaps the benefit of his experienced hand.
Helpful too are the musical reinforcements (the cheesy organ and Glass-like minimalist tracks are at one with the action) and sound effects keep the ear engaged. With so many split-second costume changes (kudos to Jessica Jahn for effectively draping the talent with everything from retro brassieres to Gone With the Wind gowns) it takes a complete team effort—on and off stage—to keep the pace and build the fun. Nearly everything comes off without a hitch, causing the time to agreeably fly by.
Conceived, written and performed as “A Penny Dreadful” (serialized melodramas printed in cheap pulp) for The Ridiculous Theatrical Company (and by most accounts its greatest triumph), Charles Ludlam’s legacy lives on, inspired by the timeless notion that “any man who wears a dress can’t be all bad. JWR