30 January 2004: Ludlam, The Mystery of Irma Vep

Hartford Stage. Directed by Michael Wilson

In his program note Wilson says this play is, since its first production in 1984, one of the most frequently produced American plays. I think it could be thought of as a quintessentially New York, Off-Broadway play that has unaccountably made it big with a wider audience.

The knowing, winking sophistication of this play is both surface and substance. It is ”serious” mystery, Agatha Christie in drag. Two actors, one the original Charles Ludlam — here, Geoffrey Roberson and James Lecesne — play the various roles, two of them — no, three (the mysterious Irma) — in drag. It is full of in-jokes, including quotations from Shakespeare, Poe, and other well-known writers; and its action forms a constant, affectionate parody of the traditional mystery genre, with all the elaborate accoutrements of the genre: faux-library bookcases; a statue on the mantelpiece which, when turned (“No, not that statue; the other statue!”) reveals a rounded metal cage in which the supposedly dead Irma Vep has been imprisoned these many years; a mummy in a sump­tuous case which turns out, despite its 3,000 years of age, to be alive and female and able to dance, half-naked, with seductive charm; French doors, constantly left ajar, whose curtains incessantly below menacingly, and beyond which lie a wolf-infested moor and a fatal footbridge over a foaming mill-race; and — the keynote of Ludlam’s manic conception — a set of characters cloaked in a kind of double disguise, fictional and theatrical. Fictionally, we have a housekeeper, Jane Twisden, who is the sadistic villainess of the piece and who reveals herself as such at the end; and a ne’er-do-well servant with the hilarious name of Nicodemus Underwood, whose alternative guise as a wolf or werewolf captures the parodic, Jekyll-and-Hyde idea and instantiates the general theatrical principle of constant quick-change costuming, accomplished faster than anyone might have thought possible, that is built into the dramatic action itself.

And, of course, the whole idea is unabashedly gay, a triumph of cross-dressing and quick-silver changing not only of clothes but of personality and identity. Roberson and Lacesne are accomplished masters of both arts, and it soon becomes, and remains, a constant pleasure to follow the exit of one character and, after an interval measured in seemingly single-digit seconds, the entrance of the alter ego. Ludlam has carefully crafted the characterization and action of the piece to carry out this basic theatrical concept of incessant change, giving us always no more than two characters on stage, sometimes one but only briefly, but with constant reference to the other characters offstage.

The audience seemed well aware, in advance, of what they were in for. There were, I noticed before the play began and again at intermission, a sizable proportion of gay couples in attendance, and there was also a rather large man in drag, in a slinky black, high hemline dress, luxuriant wig, and much lipstick, surrounded by a cadre of doting admirers. I saw him in the front row of the left-most section of the auditorium, hardly ten feet from the stage. (Given the well-known cool temperature of the Hartford Stage house, he must have been a bit chilly, but he didn’t condescend to show it.) Of course, the rest of the audience was the usual provincial city audience that supports the Hartford Stage, which probably would not exist were it not for the fact that Hartford is the insurance capital of the USA. They are not very exuberant, in fact are somewhat prim and proper, but they are somewhat expansive and flexible, out for a good time on a Friday night, and willing to enjoy a play, a comedy, that celebrates a way of engaging with the world that, in the daytime, in business suits, they might not be so well disposed to accommodate.

But Ludlum is safe, and he knows it, as the author of this delightfully mauve play. No threat here. Nothing serious; simply a take-off (literally, in a way), on a genre that to begin with appeals as harmless fun and satisfying entertainment. “Yes, we’re gay, and our disguise of heterosexuality is perfectly transparent; but we wouldn’t hurt you for the world, and what we do in private, sexually, though you probably know about it, is something you don’t have to think about at all. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the spectacle of our making ourselves ridiculous.” The view from downtown toward uptown (or Wall Street) is that view. It should not occur to a straight audience, despite the presence of gays in its midst, that there is deep, biting satire, almost nihilistic in its fury and deep, rancorous resolve, at the core of this seemingly harmless frolic. Ludlam’s adept sophistication, and the great talent of his two actor-accomplices, combine to put us at our ease, even though the play careens through a vast, dark, unpeopled universe whose sense­lessness is mirrored in the self-consumptive mechanism of the Theatre of the Ridiculous. Don’t expect us to make any better sense of the world than this, it seems to say. Above all, don’t expect us to be tragic figures. But don’t expect us to play the thankless role of sentimental victims, either. We are much too talented for that. Enjoy it while you can.

Ludlam died of AIDS in 1987, only a few years after the appearance of the AIDS virus and the onset of the world epidemic. He left a rich legacy of theatre, of which this play is perhaps the most high-profile exemplar. Who might have guessed, at the time of Ludlam’s death, that fourteen years later the President of the United States would call for funds to address the world-wide epidemic? And who, then or now, knows if it will make any difference?


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book