SAN DIEGO—No one can accuse Charles Ludlam of not being different. I say that not to malign the man, but in praise of the man. Anyone who can come up with the ideas he has come up, which are truly genius (as he has been called by some), comes off as a little loopy. His works are camp ‘representations of traditional work’ and his ‘gender bending performances as Camille or Maria Callas among others, are legendary’.
Take for example (or as Henny Youngman used to say “Take my wife, Please!”) his The Mystery of Irma Vep: A penny dreadful, now in production at the Globe’s Arena Stage located at the San Diego Museum of Art’s James S. Copley Auditorium through Sept. 6th. It’s a Gothic thriller starring Jeffrey Bender and John Cariani dressed in drag playing no less than eight different characters acting out, clearly, Ludlum’s Vampire (wink, wink) thriller.
There are werewolves, howling wolves, vampires, ghosts and mummies thrown in to the mix to scare the wits out of us. And sometimes they do come as a surprise in this great production. There are also a throw away limb or two, an oil painting (of the now deceased Irma Vep) that bleeds, a series of squeaks, shrills, storms that rage and a combination of automated and self inflicted props that work and some that don’t work among other things. (Robin Vest, sets and Paul Peterson, sound),
Most movie buffs will see it as both a satire and a farce poking fun at the Victorian melodrama vaguely resembling Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film version of Daphne du Mauier’s romantic novel, Rebecca with all roads leading to Mandacrest and surroundings. Or could it be Mandalay? Or as my seventeen-year-old Israeli grandson, Gil, would say, “I’m just sayin.’”
Charles Ludlum was an American actor, director and playwright, born in 1943, Early on he was out of the closet and never shunned away from the negative reviews of the mainstream theatre critics who accused him of founding a theatre as "gay theatre for a cult audience,"
He founded the Ridiculous Theatrical Company where he was able to showcase his talent for the gothic yet more serious side of his nature. Even though he taught and staged productions at NYU, Conn. College for Women and Yale (com media dell’arte) and won four Obie Awards, the last two before his death due to complications from having the HIV infection, he is generally remembered for his most popular play The Mystery of Irma Vep.
It opened in 1984 off-off Broadway in New York’s Greenwich Village produced by Ludlum’s company, Ridiculous Theatre Company. Ludlum was Lady Enid and others and his partner Everett Quinton was Lord Edgar. It went on to win a Special Drama Desk Award (cast and crew) and the two performers won the 1985 Obie Award for Ensemble Performance.
It’s a rapid-change tour de force style that might leave you breathless even before the end of Act I. The story takes place in the 1880’s at the home of Egyptologist Lord Edgar Hillcrest (John Cariani) who has just arrived home with his new wife
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Lady Enid (Jeffrey M. Bender). Staring down at them in the living quarters of the Hillcrest mansion is a portrait of the former Lady of the house Lady Irma Vep (anagram for vampire).
An eternally lit candle illumines her portrait. Jason Bieber’s lighting design might be included as one of the characters. Without the lighting and sound designs creating the atmosphere it would just look like two mishughenas in drag coming and going.
His long time housekeeper, Jane (John Cariani) does not like the intrusion one bit and has no intention of making the new Lady at ease. Then there is Nicodemous (Jeffrey M. Bender) the one legged (his other is wooden) groundskeeper/ swineherd who has a long history with both the family and Jane. Each has a personal secret and both know all the family secrets of those living, past and present, at the estate!
The actors go back and fourth alternating their (not necessarily in order) characters with amazingly speedy costume (Jenny Mannis) and dialogue changes to move the story forward. While the plot, if you will, to uncover what really happened to Irma Vep rambles (it’s a bit too long after the initial setup) along the lines of a whodunit mystery, with the obvious is staring us in the face.
It’s campy throughout taking us from the cliffs of Hillcrest to Egypt and mummies, to buried treasures to unleashed sarcophaguses and back to the Hillcrest estate where we hope Lady Enid and Lord Edgar will live happily ever after.
Between director Henry Wishcamper, John Cariani, Jeffrey M. Bender and an assortment of stagehands chaos is made to look like organized mayhem. With the theatre in the round setup stagehands carrying props to and fro and one manipulating some remote control switch (that had some problems obeying on opening night), there was somewhat of a distraction.
That said, nothing could detract from the talent of both Bender, a big guy, who inhabits the Lady Enid role as easily as the hunchbacked, limping and disheveled Nicodemus. Bender is a hoot with his miraculous fast costume changes. When he comes on as Lady Enid with his perfectly coiffed up do in frilly gowns, flowing, feminine sleep attire in one scene, and as the resurrected Egyptian mummy appearing and walking away from the sarcophagus in Act II, you just want to howl (pardon the pun) out loud. Timing, they say is everything in farce, and they’ve got it down pat.
Cariani, who is spot on perfect as prissy Jane and ‘I haven’t got a clue of what’s going on in my mansion"'s Lord Edgar, never flinches until his Lord’s moustache kept ungluing; one time even transferring to Bender's face after a long embrace. As Jane she/he is steely and menacing, just the opposite of the clueless Lord Edgar. The whole setup is too funny to miss.
The Mystery of Irma Vep continues through September 6th. For more info visit TheOldGlobe.org
See you at the theatre.