Cross-Dressed to Kill

Before heading to see the newly formed Florida Playwright's Theatre present a penny-dreadfully fine rendition of Charles Ludlam's 1984 classic camp parody, The Mystery of Irma Vep, implant three words firmly in your mind: courage, ambition, facetiousness. The first two refer to the company, which boldly takes on a brash and challenging piece A albeit not by a Florida playwright this time A difficult to stage in a larger space with state-of-the-art equipment, let alone a black box-ette still in the process of construction. In their first year, most emerging theaters play it safe and offer straightforward, simplistic works. This bunch knows no such cowardice. Without giving away too much of the "mystery" and shocks essential to the show, I can safely say that the actors, director, and crew take real risks in portraying the broadest of comedy without ringing false or amateurish in any way.

Facetious was the great New York playwright Ludlam's middle name, and nowhere is that tongue more apparently in cheek than for Irma Vep. To say that the play was meant to poke fun at heavy-handed old romances such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca A not to mention an occasional friendly jab at Shakespeare, Poe, silent movie serials, and horror flicks of the 1930s A doesn't do justice to the creator's achievement. The late actor, director, and writer who founded the aptly named Ridiculous Theatrical Company off-off-Broadway in 1967 always managed to keep his approach fresh and outrageous without going so far afield that he became offensive or incomprehensible, right up to his death from AIDS two decades later. Everett Quinton, who recently delivered a monologue about Dracula at the Colony Theater as part of Naya Water's new performance art series, now runs Ludlam's lower Manhattan troupe. In fact, it was for Quinton and himself that Ludlam wrote Irma Vep.

So what is Irma Vep about? On the surface: vampires, bleeding pictures, mummies, Egyptologists, hunchbacks, werewolves, second wives, ghosts, and hidden chambers. Lady Enid Hillcrest comes to her husband Edgar's estate to take the place of his (presumed to be) dead first wife, the shady Lady Irma. There Enid encounters Jane Twinsend, an odd, opinionated maid, and Nicodemus Underwood, a sniveling servant with a wooden leg. She also immediately senses that something is wrong with the house and all its occupants. Not only do Jane and Edgar maintain a candlelit shrine to Irma, but wolves howl in the night and townspeople anywhere near the estate are routinely torn limb from limb.

However, any surface interpretation belies the fun you'll have experiencing the unusual twists and turns in the Hillcrest saga, and the problem with explaining the layers mischievously lurking underneath is that I'll ruin your good time by doing so. Suffice it to say that characters enter and exit scenes with increasing frequency as the play builds, and they're not always who you think they are. As far as the horror aspect, only two small children in the audience remained frightened throughout the action. The rest of the spectators stayed quiet for perhaps fifteen minutes but soon caught on to Ludlam's absurd slant and proceeded to giggle until the final curtain call.

That the company can introduce this particular audience largely unfamiliar with Ludlam's ludicrous sight gags and cross-dressing actors, and make the whole jamboree so amusing, deserves three or four rounds of applause. The cast, especially Stephen England and Paul Thomas in a number of roles, knows how to ham it up with finesse, and they work up a powerful sweat in accomplishing the variety of tasks Ludlam assigns to them. All must walk a very fine line between camp and just plain bad acting, but an expert commitment to the absurdity ensures that they never fall off the high wire. Director Eric Bedenbaugh, an acquaintance of the author's, serves Ludlam perfectly, conducting one of the best romps of this type I've ever seen.

Forgive me for being so coy, but you'll understand when you see the play. I heartily recommend it to anyone with some sense of humor, especially if you're feeling on the blue side now that the snowbirds are leaving.

Stage Notes
Season's greetings have come my way from several theaters. In other words, news has arrived about the upcoming selections planned for the 1993-1994 season.

From the Big Money guys, those producers who display their gems at venues such as the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, the Jackie Gleason Theater, and the Parker Playhouse, look forward to Broadway's smash rock musical hit Tommy by Pete Townshend and Des MacAnuff, as well as Guys and Dolls, Five Guys Named Moe, Miss Saigon, and Clarence Darrow.

According to Juan Cejas, artistic director of ACME, he's shooting for the following lineup: The Elephant Man, Death of a Salesman, a production to be announced, and Marvin's Room (or Someone to Watch Over Me), in addition to the Summer New Playwrights' Festival.

Actors' Playhouse starts with Oliver, followed by A Fine and Private Place, Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Funny Girl, an adult mystery called Toyer, and a just for fun spoof, Prom Queens Unchained.

Of course, Miami doesn't get bogged down in complete inertia during the muggy months, even on the boards. ACME has its summer festival, The Ring Theatre plans to produce Broadway Bound, Little Shop of Horrors, and The Foreigner for steamy-weather entertainment, while Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches presents two relatively new works, Ripe Conditions and Always...Patsy Cline. Many other venues around town similarly produce nonstop without a summer break.

Although next season's selections look promising as far as entertainment value, I already see the same old local dramaturgical problem that stands out year after year. Where are the total experiments, the new plays ready to workshop? It's fine to put on a new play after working on rewrites for a few weeks, but most companies that truly make breakthroughs with original work build them (workshop them) over the course of many, many months.

Even more disheartening is the fact that while looking through April's American Theatre magazine, I saw the notices for next year's season around the nation. Locales such as Sausalito, San Diego, Santa Monica, D.C., Atlanta, Baltimore, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Santa Fe, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Houston, and Milwaukee A certainly not dramatic centers A all boast scores of new, unfamiliar work in their lineups. Why do I recognize so many of the plays in South Florida's new season? Why do some of them bore me already, because I've seen one too many revivals?

It's fine to proclaim that Miami now owns the cutting edge and that a cultural mecca is just around the corner. But someone needs to literally put their money where their mouth is before we can lay claim to any advancement or major contribution to the theatrical arts.


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