Charles Ludlam was an icon of queer theater. The actor-writer’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company—a spin-off from the Play-House of the Ridiculous, established in 1965 by Warhol protege Ronald Tavel—specialized in genderfuck, where men dress as women with little effort to disguise their maleness. In shows like Turds in Hell, Whores of Babylon, and Eunuchs of the Forbidden City, the Ridiculous used bad drag and broad overacting to attack convention and celebrate what Ludlam called “the deviant and the original.”
Today Ludlam’s biggest hit, The Mystery of Irma Vep, is a staple of regional theater. Penned as a vehicle for Ludlam and his longtime lover, Everett Quinton, and premiered in 1984—three years before Ludlam’s death from AIDS at age 44—it’s a burlesque of gothic horror that appeals to mainstream theatergoers as well as fringe theater fans. Although relatively tame by the standards of Ludlam’s earlier work, it still lives up to Tavel’s two-sentence manifesto: “We have passed beyond the Absurd. Our position is completely Ridiculous.”
The Mystery of Irma Vep is a gauntlet for two actors, testing their ability to change characters and costumes on a dime as they tackle six roles between them. Inspired by sources ranging from Jane Eyre and Gaslight to penny dreadfuls and the Hammer monster movies of the 1950s and ’60s, it concerns that staple of the gothic genre—an endangered young woman living in a dark old house.
Newly married to Lord Edgar Hillcrest, Lady Enid Hillcrest has come to live at her husband’s isolated English country estate, Mandacrest, where she realizes that Edgar is haunted by the memory of his first wife, Irma Vep (an anagrammatic name borrowed from Louis Feuillade’s 1915 French silent-film serial Les Vampires). Enid’s position is also threatened by Jane, the saucy, sinister maid who remains loyal to the supposedly dead Irma. Enid’s only protector is Nicodemus, the manor’s one-legged groundskeeper and swineherd. Act two finds Edgar in the deepest recesses of an Egyptian tomb, bringing the mummy of a 3,000-year-old princess back to life before returning to Mandacrest with her sarcophagus.
Obviously, the play makes little attempt at credibility or even coherence. The ludicrously overplotted narrative is just an excuse for over-the-top acting and a nonstop barrage of pop-culture and highbrow allusions (including some hilariously mangled snippets from Shakespeare, Poe, and Wilde). In this Court Theatre production, director Sean Graney amplifies Ludlam’s campy double entendres and groaner puns with lewd sight gags, gross-out bits, and an especially clever piece of shtick that satirizes his own penchant for putting audiences in the middle of his shows. Graney’s previous assignment at Court, Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, was also the work of a subversive queer writer. This production is equally creative—and raunchy—but a lot more tightly coordinated.
I’ve seen The Mystery of Irma Vep in two previous Chicago productions: in 1987 at the now-defunct Remains Theatre, with Bruce Norris and Jamie Baron, and in 2003 at Northlight, with Baron appearing opposite Tom Aulino. Court’s rendition is better than both, in large part due to the improbable casting of Chris Sullivan in the roles originally played by Ludlam. A big, bald, burly guy whose voice can range from a basso growl to a shrill scream, Sullivan tore up the stage in Graney’s mounting of The Hairy Ape at the Goodman’s Eugene O’Neill festival last season. Here he proves he’s a deft, even delicate comedian. As Enid, he’s womanly without a hint of cliched effeminacy. He towers over his nimble costar, Erik Hellman, which makes their broad, sometimes vulgar physical comedy all the funnier. At its best, their comical camaraderie suggests bawdy versions of Abbott and Costello or Hope and Crosby.
Jack Magaw’s elaborate set is atmospherically lit by Heather Gilbert to evoke Victorian melodrama—right down to the footlights, which the maid dutifully dusts. Alison Siple’s costumes are hilarious, and Michael Griggs’s sound design provides all the whistling wind, howling wolves, ominously rumbling thunder, and spooky musical cues you could desire.
As he did with The Hairy Ape, Graney has imposed his own twist ending on the script. I didn’t like how he altered the O’Neill play because he changed the author’s intention. But the climax of The Mystery of Irma Vep is its weakest point, and this production fixes the problem of how to bring the whole preposterous plot to a close while reminding us that there’s no tour de force without a crack backstage crew.