THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP, Defiant Theatre, at National Pastime Theater. On the surface this seems a straightforward send-up of 19th-century gothic fiction: the convoluted story involves werewolves, vampires, ghosts, Egyptian myths, secret panels, portraits that bleed real gore, and, of course, lots of screaming. But this penny dreadful was written by Charles Ludlam of the Ridiculous Theatre Company, renowned for its camp-drag aesthetic. Ludlam intended all the characters to be played by only two actors–two male actors. Defiant Theatre has never abided by tradition, however, and what could be more revolutionary than having an actual female perform the roles originally given to a man playing a woman?

Ludlam’s humor survives the unconventional casting with remarkable ease–a line like “Put down that gun, Jane! That’s a man’s tool you have in your hand!” is funny no matter what. Director Jim Slonina keeps the pace roadrunner swift, and Richard Ragsdale and Michelle Primeaux ably retain their poker-faced seriousness even as they zip in and out of costumes and characters in record time (the four backstage dressing assistants receive their own curtain call). Splendiferous technical effects include a spooky-tunes score by “audio sculptor” Gregor Mortis and a delightful camel fashioned by Stephanie Nelson. –Mary Shen Barnidge