Preview: The Mystery of Irma Vep

Philly is treated to the ridiculous theatre of Charles Ludlam. We go behind the scenes with the director.

Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner probably described Charles Ludlam best. “The theatre of Ludlam was a delirious, glorious ransacking of the contents of the entire world, all of history, everything written, every story ever told,” writes Kushner in a new anthology of Ludlam’s plays. “His plays are funny, erudite, poetic, transgressive, erotic, anarchic, moving, and so theatrical they seem the Platonic ideal of everything we mean when we use that word.”

If it sounds complex – it is. It’s also very funny, sometimes quite naughty and, well, gay.

And while the American actor and playwright may have been inspired to twist seemingly “untwistable” classics into many a perverse, mythical romp during his hey day with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company he founded in New York back in the ’80s, Ludlam – the man – died from AIDS complications in 1987. His premature departure left quite a void in the theatre world that was really only just getting used to his madcap art. And anyone who’s ever seen or read his plays knows why.

The Mystery of Irma Vep is often considered one of Ludlam’s best, most popular plays – and one that relies on two actors of the same sex (that’s in the contract, folks) to play more than a half-dozen roles in a send-up of Gothic horror with more quick changes than, well, a Cher concert.

“I play three roles,” says Dito van Reigersberg, one of the actors in the show, perhaps best known for his work with Pig Iron and as the tall (and very hairy) drag diva Martha Graham Cracker. In this show, he whirls between one character – an actress- and the next, a tour guide with questionable ethics, and another, a dirty brute with…a wooden leg?

We talked to Harriet Power, the director of this new production of Irma Vep at the Act II Playhouse in Ambler before it opens next week (Oct. 25), about the fun, bawdiness and challenges of interpreting Ludlam for today’s audiences – and if she ever worries about wardrobe malfunctions.

What inspired you to take on a Charles Ludlam play?

Anyone Tony Kushner raves about is an artist I want to intimately know! And oddly, perhaps, in a 35-year professional theatre career, I’ve never seen a Charles Ludlam play, but have read many of his pieces, and greatly admire his imagination and chutzpah.

What attracted you to Irma Vep?

Luigi Sottile and Dito van Reigersberg play multiple roles, including Lord Edgar and Lady Enid, in Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep (cast photos by Mark Garvin).

This play asks the impossible of its two brave and brilliant actors: Can each of them change costume (often in less than five seconds) 20 times in the space of 95 minutes, while so instantly and thoroughly inhabiting each of their roles that the audience simultaneously applauds their technical heroics and surrenders to every character, twist and turn of the story? Act II Playhouse seemed an ideal venue for Irma Vep. Our intimate, 130-seat house is similar to the venue where Ludlam premiered this play (even down to our low ceiling), putting our audiences close to the action.

How closely do you honor his “ridiculous theatre” style?

As a director, I’m a stickler for story. As outlandish as the plot twists might be, I want the audience to be able to invest in the characters and what they’re fighting for. I also love style in the theatre, and am endlessly tickled by Ludlam’s “ridiculous” style, which seems to live simultaneously in melodrama, farce, camp, physical clowning and heartfelt truth.

What can Philly audiences expect from the new production?

Philly audiences can expect to see the best two actors since Ludlam and [Everett] Quinton bring this play to life. I’m not exaggerating. This is exactly what I think. Dito van Reigersberg and Luigi Sottile seem born to play Ludlam’s style, which demands total commitment to the characters and their outsize fantasies, and also requires beautiful singing voices and formidable physical range (from ballroom dancing to turning into a werewolf onstage).

How would you describe Dito and Luigi on stage?

Both Dito and Luigi are incredibly supple, fit, and fearless – and are extraordinarily spontaneous and generous. One of them comes up, in the moment, with a strong choice and the other instantly responds to and builds on it. They are acute listeners with delicious senses of humor. They were able, very early in the process, to differentiate each character through distinct, hilarious, and sometimes very moving physical and vocal choices. And both are fearless. They love to play. From all the reading I’ve done about Ludlam and his partner Everett Quinton – who originated the eight roles in Irma Vep – their creative process seems to drink from the same “well” as ours seems to.

What inspires the play for you as a director?

In explaining his impulse behind Irma Vep, Charles Ludlam 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” – a value that’s helped guide Dito’s, Luigi’s and my collaboration. We’ve talked a lot about the serious underpinning to Irma Vep – the fact that, for all its giddy goofiness, Ludlam shows us that first impressions aren’t always accurate; that the underdog and the downtrodden are as complex and worthy of love as those society esteems as “beautiful” or “valued.” I’m hoping Philly audiences will feel little flashes of this amidst the mayhem.

How did you prepare for the show?

I read the play countless times and created a very complex, six-page grid of character entrances and exits, with quick changes and special effects highlighted. There are more than 40 of them! I also watched all the old films Charles Ludlam was inspired by – favorites being Rebecca, The Mummy and The Wolf Man. The actors and I have marveled at Ludlam’s ability to draw on these wonderful old movies and yet create something entirely original. I also read a lot of what Ludlam wrote about creating The Mystery of Irma Vep, plus his biography and Tony Kushner’s admiring introduction to the recently-published anthology of his best plays.

Given the complexity of the script, what are some of the challenges?

We have a lot to accomplish in a very short time. The 40-plus quick changes will demand endless repetition, as – with stopwatches in hand – we work to streamline every moment in the backstage ballet. One of the biggest directing challenges is creating conditions that feed actor spontaneity while keeping the story reasonably under control. Ludlam trusted and loved his audiences, knowing that all of us who make and see theatre savor the delicious conspiracy of make-believe. At the inevitable moments of daunting challenge, I draw on this essential truth of the theatre – we, humans, love spooky, surprising, funny and moving stories.

If you had to sum it up in a sentence – complexities and all – how would you describe Irma Vep?

On her first night at Mandacrest, the fog-enshrouded English estate of Lord Edgar Hillcrest, Lady Enid, the new wife, encounters a vampire, a werewolf, and the supposedly dead first wife – and realizes she must solve “the mystery of Irma Vep” to win her and her husband’s happiness.

I might also summarize The Mystery of Irma Vep as a celebration of what only theatre can do, which is to take viewers on a wild, co-conspiratorial ride full of laughter, amazement – and surprise.

The Mystery of Irma Vep, Oct. 25, Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, 215-654-0200.