"The Mystery of Irma Vep," Charles Ludlam's delirious sendup of gothic conventions both theatrical and cinematic, gets a dizzying workout at the hands of a pair of ferociously committed performers in its rather late-in-the-day L.A. debut, which comes some 15 years after Ludlam's original Ridiculous Theatrical Co. staging (and more than a decade after Ludlam's death from AIDS in 1987 at age 44).
“The Mystery of Irma Vep,” Charles Ludlam’s delirious sendup of gothic conventions both theatrical and cinematic, gets a dizzying workout at the hands of a pair of ferociously committed performers in its rather late-in-the-day L.A. debut, which comes some 15 years after Ludlam’s original Ridiculous Theatrical Co. staging (and more than a decade after Ludlam’s death from AIDS in 1987 at age 44). Happily, Randee Trabitz’s production, which gives local stage stars John Fleck and Tony Abatemarco the roles of a lifetime, or rather several lifetimes, proves that some things are indeed worth waiting for.
Ludlam’s particular genius was an uncanny manner of mixing the lowest of comedy with the highest theatrical artistry. “Vep” is among his best plays, with its central gimmick — having just two actors perform all eight roles — adding a manic edge to a plot already preposterously packed with genre cliches. Ludlam’s fond respect for those cliches is clearly shared by the collaborators at work here: They don’t betray the material by winking endlessly at the audience (leaving that to Ludlam’s own occasional in-joke or double entendre); they know it’s far funnier to play this silliness in deadly earnest.
The twisted unfolding of Ludlam’s tale begins in the drawing room of Mandacrest, a manse on the moors that has more than a syllable in common with “Rebecca’s” Manderley. Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio’s sets are appropriately atmospheric, and Peter Golub’s incidental music — written for the original production — adds a few more layers.
At Mandercrest, the repressed and repressive servant Jane Twisden (Fleck), of arched eyebrow and malevolent facial tic, mourns the loss of Lady Irma Hillcrest while fending off the noxious advances of peg-legged, thick-brogued houseboy Nicodemus (Abatemarco) and subtly making life hellish for the new Lady Hillcrest, also played by Abatemarco. Fleck doubles as the twitty Lord Edgar Hillcrest, whose interest in Egyptology allows Ludlam to move his tale to an Egyptian tomb in act two, and drag in a mummy or two as the fanciful tale turns.
Vampires, werewolves, hidden passageways and various other accoutrements of horror pix past vie with highbrow allusions to Poe, Shakespeare and the Brontes in a stew of literary homage, Victorian melodrama and high camp.
But it’s the acting here that provides most of the thrills. Fleck’s Jane is a takeoff of sorts on the Judith Anderson-Gale Sondergaard brand of film villainess, but it’s a delightful creation on its own terms, too. When a slightly tipsy Jane regales the cowering Lady Enid with the dark story of the death of the first Lady Hillcrest, Fleck’s turn takes on a feverish, frantically funny intensity that’s almost cartoon-like — you half expect steam to come out of his ears. And that’s just during the exposition.
Zipping on and offstage as they switch roles, Fleck and Abatemarco are never at a loss for a bit of actorly ingenuity to put across: Abatemarco, playing an Egyptian tomb-crawler, earns a genuine laugh just through his pronunciation of the word “sarcophagus.” His Nicodemus is a figure both comically grotesque and pathetic, drawn with real feeling, as indeed are all the characters here.
In fact that’s the biggest mystery of “The Mystery of Irma Vep”: How Ludlam can stuff a play with so much ludicrous stage business and still have it succeed as the kind of melodrama it purports to spoof. Such is his ingenuity that it’s not just the actors that are left breathless at the end of the show.