Prolific comedic playwright and actor Charles Ludlam staged and performed in an amazing number of comic plays for Off-Broadway’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which he founded in 1984. His best-known work, The Mystery of Irma Vep, a satirical send-up of sensational “penny dreadfuls” that pokes fun at overheated Gothic melodramas, was a hit before and after Ludlam’s death from AIDS in 1987 at the age of 44.
The show has been a recurrent and popular production for three decades; it was the most-produced play in America in 1991. It’s back for Cincinnati audiences in a summer production by Cincinnati Landmark Productions at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater in East Price Hill.
Ludlam’s delirious tale — set at “Mandacrest,” an ancient, sinister estate on a remote desolate moor — pokes fun at literary classics by the likes of the Brontë sisters and Edgar Allan Poe, plays by Shakespeare, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 psychological thriller Rebecca and more. Ludlam was known for pushing theatrical boundaries; he liked to say he was “recycling culture.”
In addition to his witty writing — the show’s crazed plot overflows with literary references, horrible puns and double entendres — Ludlam excelled as an extraordinary comic performer.
In Irma Vep he wrote a piece that required him and his partner Everett Quinton to play eight characters, making quick changes and often cross-dressing. This was a novel idea in 1984; it’s a more common theatrical trope today in shows such as Greater Tuna and The 39 Steps.
At the Incline, Ryan J. Poole and Tyler Gau take on the exhausting challenge of playing numerous characters. Gau exits through one door as the officious, know-it-all maid Jane Twisden and returns seconds later as the lord of the manor, Edgar Hillcrest, an eminent Egyptologist who tragically lost his wife and son to a werewolf. We learn that he is “hung up on his mummy.” When the scene changes to a tomb in Egypt, a mummy case opens to reveal a lively, hungry and long-dead occupant.
Poole is Nicodemus Underwood, a wooden-legged Scotsman who is Mandacrest’s Shakespeare-spouting handyman — and also a frustrated werewolf. In the blink of an eye he becomes demure, elegant Lady Enid, Lord Edgar’s second wife, wearing a mess of a blond wig.
Irma Vep, Lord Edgar’s possibly late first wife, pops in and out at surprising moments and is represented by a portrait that occasionally bleeds. There’s a lot going on behind the Incline’s cartoonish, pen-and-ink set as several dressers help the actors make their changes. Off-stage lines continue to spill forth as costumes are swapped. (The night I attended, a balky door became an opportunity for additional comment by the quick-witted actors; the stagehand who repaired it at intermission earned a round of applause.)
A production of this show is necessarily fueled by unrestrained theatricality. Director Bob Brunner keeps Gau and Poole spinning at a high rate of speed, but their unbridled performances sometimes outstrip the humor or fail to allow breathing room for comic elements to soak in.
The actors are surely energetic and talented performers, but their relish for the madness needs to be contained. Ludlam once wrote, “Our slant was actually to take things very seriously, especially focusing on those things held in low esteem by society and revaluing them, giving them new meaning, new worth, by changing their context.”
The magic of Irma Vep is that it deconstructs the horror genre while simultaneously celebrating its elements. Ludlam disdained performances that were too campy, preferring to present absurd characters straightforwardly. Too often Poole and Gau are overtly over the top, swamping the show’s subtle and sophisticated humor.
There are plenty of amusing moments in this production, to be sure, but the pace is so rapid — Irma Vep’s three acts are compressed into a 110-minute production with one intermission — that it’s not always easy to appreciate the gleeful wit behind the writing. A production of Irma Vep needs more than actors doing funny voices, silly walks, double takes and mugging — Ludlam yearned to celebrate these over-heated traditions, not simply make fun of them.
The Mystery of Irma Vep is at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater (801 Matson Place, East Price Hill) through Aug. 5. More info: cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com