Everything old is new again at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, and that’s great news. Twelve years after they first teamed up together here in Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, actors Brad DePlanche and Christopher Patrick Mullen reunite to deliver sight gags and wizardly quick changes, and turn lowbrow laughs into high art. The production, directed by Jim Helsinger, captures the wicked humor—if not necessarily the subversive spirit—of Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company.
A joke-a-second penny dreadful
Ludlam himself looked to the past to craft this airtight, joke-a-second comedy. The script borrows liberally from tropes of old Hollywood—particularly those found in gothic melodramas like Rebecca and the classic vampire thrillers of Lugosi and Karloff. The play’s subtitle, “A Penny Dreadful,” alludes to the cheap page-turners that titillated Victorian audiences with tales of blood, violence, and the supernatural.
The title, which dates from 1984, takes those elements and smashes them into a freewheeling amusement that dives headfirst into the waters of camp. DePlanche and Mullen play eight characters between them, crossing gender and class lines with split-second precision. Kudos to costume designer Lisa Zinni for supplying a treasure trove of threads that play on the audience’s expectations of British period drama while also subtly spoofing them—think Downton Abbey meets drag.
Welcome to Mandacrest
The action mainly takes place in a manor house called Mandacrest—an obvious riff on du Maurier’s Manderley—which set designer Steve TenEyck renders to wood-paneled, portraited perfection. The mysterious Lord Edgar (Mullen) has married Enid (DePlanche), a former actress, and spirited her away to countryside seclusion, where the specter of his late first wife (the Irma Vep) looms large. Irma’s legacy is tended by her devoted lady’s maid, Mrs. Twidsen (also Mullen), and mythologized by the creepy handyman Nicodemus Underwood (also DePlanche).
Within this frame, Ludlam lets loose a torrent of paranormal activity, as we learn of werewolves roaming the countryside and ghosts trapped inside the mansion’s stately walls. Ludlam also flirts with Egyptology—another major idée fixe of early cinema—in a subplot that takes the characters to the pyramids in the second act, introducing dancing mummies into the action. Choreographer Stephen Casey clearly had fun with this assignment.
Codes of the genre
Helsinger directs the two-hour romp at breakneck speed, landing the humor and guiding his actors to brilliantly individuated interpretations of each character. He doesn’t always linger in the more disturbing subtext of the work, which draws heavily from the unspoken implications of horror movies past and present.
As a gay artist, Ludlam understood how to read the messages coded into these genres about the clash of the individual against a repressive, unwelcoming society, and was drawn to characters scholars have long claimed as queer figures, like Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers (a clear model for Mrs. Twidsen). Don’t expect that level of camp here.
Yet the work—undoubtedly Ludlam’s most popular and enduring—still delights even when played (relatively) straight. It especially functions well with a pair as dexterous as DePlanche and Mullen. You can tell they’re enjoying every minute they spend on stage, and you can’t help relishing the energy they exude.
Coincidentally, I saw Irma Vep a week after taking in a rare revival of Ludlam’s Galas, directed by and starring his life partner (and original Irma Vep costar) Everett Quinton. That production was as scrappy and DIY as this Vep is polished and professional.
Yet both evenings cemented Ludlam’s standing as a writer of the highest order—and a major figure lost in his prime. (He died of AIDS in 1987, at the age of 44.) Let’s hope his talent and spirit continue to take center stage for many more years.
What, When, Where
The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful. By Charles Ludlam, directed by Jim Helsinger. Through July 14, 2019, at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s Schubert Theatre, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley, Pennsylvania. (610) 282-WILL or pashakespeare.org.
Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s campus is ADA-compliant, with accessible parking on site. ADA-compliant seating can be purchased online or by calling (610) 282-WILL. There will be an audio-described performance on Saturday, June 29, at 2pm.