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Switching Roles

Everett Quinton imparts a ridiculous truth to Everyman Theatre's The Mystery of Irma Vep


By Bret McCabe | Posted 11/4/2009

The Mystery of Irma Vep

Previews start Nov. 11, and the play opens Nov. 13.

For more information visit

"We had no idea how demanding it was gong to be," says Everett Quinton, recalling an opening night in a small Greenwich Village theater in the fall of 1984. "We had no idea if it was going to work. And then, we realized that it was the laughs that bought us the time to make the changes. The laugh buys you an extra few seconds. That was one of the first awarenesses in the first performance--we realized how we were going to be able to do it. But we weren't sure it was going to work. We didn't even know what it was."

Quinton sits in the Everyman Theatre's risers smiling at the memory; onstage, a drawing room set is coming into focus. An incorrigibly affable, entertaining, and intelligent man in his 50s clad in a navy shirt and black jeans, New York-native Quinton is in town to direct the very play in which he originally starred 25 years ago, a play with which he has been intimately involved over the years. It was written by Quinton's partner of 12 years, Charles Ludlam, specifically for both of them. Ludlam, of course, was the irrepressible force of nature who powered the Ridiculous Theatrical Company from 1967 until his untimely 1987 death. The play in question is the Victorian melodrama The Mystery of Irma Vep, a comedic two-hander billed as a "penny dreadful" in which two actors--Ludlam and Quinton in the original--play a total of eight male and female characters that require costume quick-changes and tremendous endurance. Consider it a performer's iron man triathlon.

For Vep, Ludlam and Quinton practically were the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Ludlam directed, co-starred, and designed the stage; Quinton co-starred and did the costumes. (Lawrence Eichler did the lighting, Peter Golub the music.) They tackled this baroque, absurdly ambitious play--Ludlam, as he did in all his plays, magically straddled theatrical conventions and the avant-garde with Vep, overstuffing the play's verbal and visual wit with allusions and zingers--and ended up with an outlandishly entertaining contemporary classic.

"Ludlam was an inspiration for me," writes local artist and 14-Karat Cabaret hostess Laure Drogoul in an e-mail. She saw RTC productions in the late 1980s, and 14-Karat regulars may recall Ludlam's card adorning the cabaret's AIDS altar, near which she posted Ludlam's axioms to a theater for ridicule--aim: to get beyond nihilism by revaluing combat--which she offered as a guide for experiencing the cabaret. "The axioms to a theater for ridicule are brilliant. . . . Losing Ludlam to AIDS was a grand cultural loss. Not having thinkers like that instigating, hatching new ideas and creations, makes the world a duller place."

There's no better proof for how Ludlam's ideas enriched culture than the entertaining Vep. "It is accessible," Quinton says. "I remember thinking about what made it experimental--because our mandate was to be experimental. And I figured out what made this experimental--it's abstract. It's abstract expressionist. And playing the abstracts and playing the clichés and it pretends not to be abstract. And you can't really tie off all the ends.

"And it's virtuoso for the actors," Quinton continues. "I remember a lady saw us do it and walked out, saying, 'What's the point?' And then she realized it was just two of us and then she changed her whole opinion. And I was thinking about what it means, the significance of the transgendered aspect of it, although it's certainly more prevalent now. One person asked me, 'Why do you think people do more drag these days than they did in the old days? And I said, 'Because more people are less afraid.' New York in the '80s was a safe place to do this, so the drag aspect of it wasn't such a big deal."

That comment touches on one of the subtle, still subversive elements of this play. Since its 1984 debut, Quinton has gone on to direct and star (in Ludlam's roles) in Vep and direct it without starring in it, and he's realized that it's tough to direct without understanding where it's coming from. One of the most over- and misused terms used to describe Vep--and Ludlam's works in general--is "camp." Ludlam's plays do include actors in drag, they are aware of gay culture, their sensibilities are extremely culturally literate, and they are delivered by embracing grand dramatic styles, but to park all those elements inside the safe harbors of "camp" feels infelicitous. It's a dismissal of the play's inherent intelligence and satire.

"All this muck about the style that everyone talks about?" Quinton asks rhetorically. "There is no 'style'--it's comedy. It's high comedy and it's truth and that's the style. If the production has a very clear logic behind it, it's going to work. If there's no clear logic, you get what they call camp. I hate the word, I hate the use of it. It's a homophobic use of the word. I find--well not always, but it generally tends to be negative.

"But I think that directors don't know how to direct it because they hear words like 'camp,'" he continues. "What men and women who play the opposite gender tend to do--and I see it less in women, but it happens--they tend to dehumanize them. The first time I directed this in 1988, this one guy came in and auditioned as [Vep character] Lord Edgar and he was brilliant. And then he went to [Vep character] Jane Twisden and it was this unhuman thing.'"

Quinton does a shrill voice and all-out caricature of a woman as an example. "And that's the danger and that's where I think people fail," he says. "Each person has to be human. If you're human and you've got that emotional reality, you can go anywhere--you can camp the hell out of it--if you've got the truth. But if you don't have that?--I saw a dreadful production of Charles' Camille once where there was no humanity. And I remember Charles saying to me that in the third act, you can hear women's pocketbooks open to get the tissues out and how important that was. You have to have that."

That may sound like a banal observation, but it highlights what Ludlam's plays do: Ludlam found a narrative approach that encourages both performer and audience member to find the humanity in transgendered performance--a profoundly sly way to short-circuit ideas of the normative. And plays such as The Mystery of Irma Vep take you on a journey outside the norm and entertain you en route.

"So I am a little jealous of these two, because they're doing it," Quinton says of Everyman's production, starring Clinton Brandhagen and Bruce R. Nelson. But he knows from experience what they have in store on opening night, and he's been preparing them for it. A half-hour of vocal warm ups have been added to the rehearsal process, but some things they're just going to have to experience on their own. "I was saying to them today, 'By the time you come in, still in the first act, you realize--and this happened every night, every time I did it--you're coming in and you're thinking, Oh god, there's still a whole mountain left to climb.'"

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