It was twenty years ago that Charles Ludlam first revealed The Mystery of Irma Vep, and it's said that on certain chill and moonless nights you can still hear Ludlam's creation creeping across the boards of darkened theaters around the world. Recently, it is whispered by those who profess to know, this madhouse of a "penny dreadful" became the longest-running play in Brazil, after eight years. Our beloved East Bay has hardly gone untouched, and Berkeley Rep will be the next to fall prey to our fiend Irma. If there is comfort to be taken, dear reader, it may be in this: If Ludlam's tale of terror and woe unfolded first as tragedy, in each subsequent re-creation it has most definitely been as farce.
But who is Irma Vep? If you ignore superstitious peasants' loose talk of anagrams, Irma Vep is a dizzying tour de force of quick-change artistry for two actors in a multitude of roles, a hilarious romp full of mysterious portraits, unspeakable horrors, and free-floating quotations from Joyce, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Victorian melodramas, and classic films such as Rebecca and Gaslight. Originally penned for his own Ridiculous Theatrical Company, featuring himself and his longtime lover Everett Quinton, Ludlam's 25th play (following such works as Turds in Hell) earned him his greatest success only three years before his death from AIDS at age 44.
"It's a flamboyant display of theatricality, really," says Berkeley Rep Associate Artistic Director Les Waters, who is helming this production. "Ludlam embraced the older traditions of theater that people have abandoned or think are old-fashioned: ventriloquism, quick changes, drag acts. He would take great works of art and turn them on their heads, or pillage what he wanted out of them. It's an insane recycling of high and low culture, and it's as funny as hell.
"The first four lines are a parody of Ibsen's Ghosts," Waters points out, but he says Irma Vep following Ghosts in the Rep's season is mere coincidence. The comedy does provide a welcome reprieve from the much bleaker world of Ibsen's classic and Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman, also directed by Waters and also a work for two actors, one of whom was originally the playwright, but any resemblance ends there. "Yellowman was two actors onstage for 95 minutes sitting in chairs playing multiple characters, and there's nothing out there other than them," Waters says. "And Irma Vep is two actors in virtuoso displays of acting, but going to the max. They're in drag, they turn into werewolves, fog pours in, there are thunderstorms. I mean, it's out there."
If Ludlam's farce is in a lighter vein (and what a lovely, tempting vein it is), that doesn't make it less important than more somber fare, Waters opines: "People like comedies, but they also downgrade them and say they aren't really that serious. But they could be making valuable points and just making you laugh in the process. And why shouldn't you go to the theater and just have a damn good laugh? Isn't that really rather good for you?"
The Mystery of Irma Vep opens on Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage April 14 and closes May 23. Info: BerkeleyRep.org or 510-647-2949.
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