Mock Goth

At one point during 1984's The Mystery of Irma Vep, Charles Ludlam's insanely goofy yet sly sendup of Gothic novels and Victorian sensibilities, a British Egyptologist leaves nineteenth-century England for the Middle East. There, Lord Edgar Hillcrest pillages an ancient tomb and schleps the spoils back home. This lust for relics is a nod to the Victorian affinity for collecting antiquities, and fits in perfectly with playwright Ludlam's satire of the era. Grave robbing is also a wily self-reference to the author's tendency to appropriate classical material and make it his own.

Ludlam launched his prolific two-decade-long career in the fertile and largely gay off-off-Broadway scene of the Sixties. A playwright, actor, producer, director, and founder of New York's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Ludlam wrote and presented more than two dozen plays before his death from AIDS-related complications in 1987. Shamelessly, he raided the dramatic, literary, and operatic canon and plumbed the well of popular culture in order to create a body of shrewd parodies. He revamped well-known characters, plots, and themes into highly original modern works, from 1973's Camille (based on Alexandre Dumas's 1848 La Dame aux Camelias) to 1984's Medea (drawn from Euripides's original) and 1974's Hot Ice, a bizarre take on gangster movies.

On the surface, Ludlam's work appears merely whimsical and campy, but through deceptively simple techniques he juggles various themes and associations. For example, his insistence on using cross-dressing male actors to play female parts underscores drama's dependence on role playing and make-believe; he also bows to a centuries-long convention of men playing female roles (women were once legally prohibited to appear on public stages) and simultaneously celebrates and mocks gay obsessions. Upholding this dual tradition of paying homage and spoofing, Ludlam's long-time partner Everett Quinton continues to mount Ridiculous Theatrical Company performances in New York; Quinton's one-person show Phaedra, based on the seventeenth- century tragedy by Jean Racine, just closed there last weekend.

The three-act Irma Vep serves up all the ingredients of Gothic literature: family secrets, lonely moors, a drafty manor house, tortured love affairs, ghosts, werewolves, vampires. As staged by Florida Playwrights' Theatre (FPT) in Hollywood, where the set design features the gold and red wallpaper of a Victorian parlor and the sound design proffers howling wind and crashing organ music, we are almost transported to the gloomy English countryside of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca or Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre -- until the burlesque kicks into gear. Men take on both male and female roles, briskly changing costumes; wigs perch askew, hemlines mop the stage floor, and dress seams burst; florid language expresses smoldering passions; puns, anagrams, and quotes from Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe fly. We are, unmistakably, in Ludlam territory.

Matt Regan's giddy direction loses momentum during Act Two -- the Egyptian sequence -- but regains its footing on English terra firma during Act Three. Paul Thomas and John Manzelli camp it up throughout, as poker-faced Lord Edgar; neurasthenic Lady Enid; crippled servant Nicodemus; and psycho-chicken Jane Twisden, the housekeeper at the family manse, Mandacrest. With Manzelli perpetually tugging at his wig, Thomas's makeup trickling down his face, and a tech crew clumsily moving furniture between scenes, we are never lulled into the naturalism to which slicker dramatic productions often aspire. I cannot decide if such low-budget production values are an intentional part of this particular FPT evening or not, but they certainly reinforce Ludlam's commitment to celebrating the artifice of theater.

A truly inspired production of a Ludlam play demands keen ironic direction that fully excavates the playwright's stratum upon stratum of parody. Regan mines only the most superficial layers of Irma Vep, such as drag and over-the-top characterization. Yet, despite torpid spacing at its center, this Irma Vep otherwise gallops along at an appropriately histrionic speed. Surrender to Ludlam's outrageousness and enjoy the ride.

Stage Whispers
With a lively theater scene in Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties keeping audiences busy, we tend to forget that Monroe County has its share of dramatic activity as well. In Key West, the Red Barn Theatre, the Waterfront Playhouse, and the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center host full schedules from December through June each year. And October brings us the annual Key West Theatre Festival, dedicated to presenting new national and local scripts; the fest opens its fifth season tonight (Thursday) and runs through Sunday, October 13.

"We've been knocking on the door of the world for five years, and it looks like this year someone outside Key West might answer," festival artistic director Joan McGillis notes in a phone interview. The Manhattan Theater Club recently called McGillis, after receiving a festival brochure, requesting that copies of two scripts from this year's lineup (Alana Macias's Denny's Chronicles and Sharr White's Iris Fields) be sent to New York for the Theater Club's perusal. Both plays are slated for full productions in Key West during the ten-day fete, along with Joseph Coyne's Exploding Love (directed by visiting artist Mike Rutenberg, theater professor at Hunter College in New York) and Rich Orloff's Water Boy. Six other original works will receive staged readings during the week. Other highlights include a playwright workshop led by Rafael Lima, screenwriter, dramatist, and director of the creative writing program at Miami's New World School of the Arts.

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