“The Mystery of Irma Vep” pokes fun at everything from Hitchcock to “Wuthering Heights” to grade-B horror flicks, then lards them with a collection of vampires, werewolves and ghosts.
Opening Friday at the Vortex Theatre, Charles Ludlam’s satire combines camp with comedy in a loving embrace of what the playwright called “those things held in low-esteem by society.” Even the title is an anagram for “vampire.”
The show requires two actors to play eight characters of both sexes, whirling through 35 costume changes across a two-hour performance.
Director Kenneth Ansloan, co-founder of Albuquerque’s drag troupe The Dolls, called “Irma Vep” “Shakespeare meets a classic Gothic film with a large dose of Monty Python thrown in for good measure.”
“You read it and you go, ‘How do two people do this?'” he said. “The costume changes are lightning fast.”
Costume designers must forego time-consuming buttons in favor of Velcro.
When Ludlam died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987, he left behind a flamboyant, genre-defying oeuvre that depended on outrageous, easily discarded costumes and cheap wigs. In “Irma Vep,” actors Bryan Andrew Lambe and Garrick Milo toss gowns, trousers, fezzes and the occasional wooden leg faster than Hitchcock’s steely Mrs. Danvers dismissed the newlywed Rebecca.
“I had asked both of them to read,” Ansloan said of his two-person cast. “They showed up at the same time, so they read together. Their chemistry – it was like they had been rehearsing this scene for weeks. They just nailed it.”
It all starts in Mandacrest, a sinister and remote estate set on (where else?) the English moors.
Think Charlotte Brontë bingeing on grade-B Hammer horror and “Dracula” studded with the occasional Egyptian mummy spouting bad puns.
The script poses challenges to set designers through special effects like floating and bleeding pictures.
“You also have to have a man transform into a werewolf on stage,” Ansloan said. “It’s very atmospheric, but it’s just hilariously funny.”
Known as “the master of travesty,” Ludlam first produced the play with his Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1984. The cast and crew won a Special Drama Desk Award and the cast won the 1985 Obie for Ensemble Performance.
By 1991, it was the most-produced play in the United States.