One of the late Charles Ludlam's drag secrets was bird seed. Bird seed for breasts, that is. He discovered that, so long as you seal the pouches tightly, you were assured of mammaries that were pliant and shapely and shiftable, not unlike the real deal.
People often accuse Ludlam of purveying camp that flaunted the rough edges like big shiny zircon. And it's true that back in 1967, he and the co-founders of the legendary Ridiculous Theatrical Company didn't enjoy the falling-chandelier budgets of a Broadway show. But spectacle within means was always on Ludlam's mind; his florid love for artifice made capital the letters A-R-T in that word. Ludlam's philosophy was: You trowel on the makeup and the wigs and the grand accents, and if the results looked terribly phony, you just keep on layering until the person beneath was completely obscured. Eventually, the fakeness could be expanded exponentially so that it dominated the stage and thus became its own separate universe, its own reality.
Folks like to speak for deceased artists who had a staunch vision (Ludlam died of HIV-related illnesses exactly 20 years after he formed Ridiculous) because that vision reiterated in interviews during their lifetime becomes, if the artist is lucky, a kind of life after death. You might be wrong in saying, "Charles would've liked this or that," but at least he remains an active force, a dynamic consideration, in the revival of his work. And so I'm going to say that of the hundreds of times The Mystery of Irma Vep has been staged across the country over the last decade, Ludlam would've appreciated the grand spit-shine given this material by the designers of the Dallas Theater Center's new production.
The Mystery of Irma Vep
Dallas Theater Center, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.
Through February 6
Alexander Dodge's set, which reminded me of the night I woke up drunk on the floor of a converted church (a long but quite entertaining tale for another time), had scraps of the floor tiles and the ornate ceiling and the walls all crammed together into one receding focal point. Lighting designer Robert Wierzel has created wonderful fireplace and lightning effects, flickering white and red on the faces of the actors as they stretch their mouths into all kinds of extravagant emotions. With billowing smoke and a videotaped, 1930s-styled movie credit sequence codirected by Jonathan Moscone and the Dallas Video Festival's Bart Weiss, the whole shebang is quite slick and expensive-looking. There is indeed a small miracle to be celebrated in Ludlam's early, poverty-filled excursions into kitsch, gathering production values from Dumpsters and junk drawers. But let's face it, folks: If money can't buy happiness, it can certainly go a long way toward realizing the playwright's sequined, satiny, blood-soaked theory of theater as hyperreality.
The stars of The Mystery of Irma Vep are Glenn Kessler and Sam Catlin, who had been classmates and frequent co-stars together on the stages of New York University. There seems to be a bond of genuine affection and respect between them, which of course gives the comedy more heft, because it springs from a place of empathy. They each play multiple roles in Ludlam's homage to Victorian thrillers and monster movies and Alfred Hitchcock, although they owe as much to Mel Brooks' homage to those sources as to the sources themselves.
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Lady Enid (Catlin) has just arrived at the fog-shrouded estate of Mandacrest with her new husband, Egyptologist Lord Edgar (Kessler). She encounters a most unsympathetic housemaid in Jane (Kessler), who has apparently borrowed the bra from Cloris Leachman's Nurse Diesel character in High Anxiety, and a rather lascivious hunchbacked handyman named Nicodemus (Catlin). But there are "veer-voovs" und "wam-peers" stalking the moors of Mandacrest, and Lady Enid must find the key to the mystery behind her new husband's late wife, Irma Vep, to save herself.
Actually, there are no keys to unlock The Mystery of Irma Vep -- one of Ludlam's chief pleasures was careening plot turns that never lead you to any particular destination. The actors must be gratified by their variety of roles (and quick changes between them), but not self-aggrandizing or careless, in order to successfully weave the plot that constantly turns in on itself like the rings of Saturn. Director Jonathan Moscone won me over by using another pioneer of camp as a wise muse over this production -- Carol Burnett. Indeed, Burnett and Ludlam were virtually simultaneous (in different media) with their celebrations of old movie absurdity. This script fits right in with Went With the Wind and, especially, Rebecky, and Catlin and Kessler seem like virtuoso members of her ensemble cast.
Without doubt, The Mystery of Irma Vep is an entertaining night of theater, but it's also about a half hour too long. After a while, the double takes, the exaggerated expressions, the little tics and traits of each character that repeat themselves like motifs in various situations no longer surprise and delight us. They come to feel inevitable, and you can actually predict when, say, a character will hurl something into the fireplace to make the crackling sound of a blaze-up. Like the drum beat that follows the punch lines in an old Borscht Belt show, the repetitions cease to become funny and are finally just comforting with their familiarity.
I feel safe in saying that Charles Ludlam wanted us to laugh, but I'm not sure one of his goals was to lull us like babies into a gently rocking peacefulness. He is a pioneer of pop-culture camp and a Cassandra for its introduction into the mainstream -- Ludlam was one of the first to adopt a comic aesthetic out of overkill and melodrama. But there's that issue of intent. Camp is funniest when its creators are completely oblivious to the monster they've created (for flawless recent examples, rent Showgirls or Wild Things). Ludlam's conscious adoption of the conventions from unintended masterpieces of badness, in the end, virtually ensures that those masterpieces will never occur again, or at least will happen very rarely. In the end, The Mystery of Irma Vep isn't really camp, it's nostalgia. You laugh, but you really wish you could lose your cynicism so that the once-wicked Ludlam could deflower you. "Virginity is like a balloon in the carnival of life," says one character. "It disappears with the first prick." I wish Ludlam had the power to pop me all over again.