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Camped Out

Ridiculous Theater at Its Most Sublime in Columbia

Mummy Dearest: Bruce Nelson (left) and Brian McMonagle in The Mystery of Irma Vep

By Michael Anft | Posted 2/16/2000

The Mystery of Irma Vep

Charles Ludlam

The lord of the manor has a thing for mummies. The farmhand is a werewolf. The dead wife's portrait bleeds. There's a rumor of a vampire vamping about. And the lord's new wife—an "actress," of course—has underhanded designs on his estate. Match this preponderance of clichés from the macabre and the melodramatic with performances in drag, an off-kilter backdrop, dozens of ridiculously quick costume changes, and purposely over-the-top facial expressions and elocution and you end up with compounded, absurd hilarity—in other words, the milieu of the late contrarian playwright/camp follower Charles Ludlam.

Never mentioned in the same breath as contemporaneous modern masters Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, and David Mamet—largely because he eschewed any overarching formal seriousness or stylish, streamlined dialogue in his works—Ludlam has nonetheless achieved the status of a cult figure since his death in 1987 from an AIDS-related illness. His plays, most notably Reverse Psychology and The Artificial Jungle, were first staged by Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Co. in New York, and function as fun-house mirrors to both the self-seriousness of the modern stage and the hackneyed history of popular theater—particularly its eerie, floor-rapping, Gothic sensibility.

As does 1984's The Mystery of Irma Vep, believed to be Ludlam's most regularly produced play. Combining Ludlam's preference for overly expressive acting by performers in multiple roles, slapstick, and ironic highbrow pretensions, Vep qualifies as a minor classic. In the hands of Columbia's Rep Stage, the professional folks behind the production currently in residence at Howard Community College's Theatre Outback, Ludlam's manic, satirical iconoclasm takes and holds center stage.

Credit director Kasi Campbell with casting the right duo of actors for Vep's breakneck pace and comic hyperactivity. Bruce Nelson—known for his large, blithe, and wink-wink comedic portrayals—continues to hone his skills nicely, bringing peg-legged farmhand Nicodemus, the scheming Lady Enid (the "actress"), and would-be Egyptian desert guide Alcazaar to life with such a gift for inflection and mannerism that the term "scenery chewing" seems an understatement. But even the able Nelson is trumped by Bruce McMonagle and his portrayal of the housemaid Jane—and especially his reading of the heavily made-up Egyptologist Lord Edgar. The victim of a liberal hand with the eyeliner, McMonagle's Edgar has the facial tics and hyperthyroidal eyes of a silent film star, making his waggish lines ("The desert is calling!") seem even more cartoonish and ridiculous. His overdone Brit accent seals Edgar's status as a pompous bore. Even his lengthy rendering of the word "nostalgia" had them rolling in the aisles.

During Act One, the play's plot, which, of course, makes no linear sense—it's designed only to tweak an audience's expectations—centers on a mysterious howling, the plotting of Lady Enid, a ghoul, a werewolf, and the loss of Lady Irma, whose portrait hangs above a fireplace in Lou Stancari's eye-jarringly skewed set full of slanted doorways and unflush angles. The act features everything from mock tension among the principals to hilariously bad props, such as a limp puppet of a wolf—killed by the brave Edgar, even though a knowing Nicodemus howls, "It's the wrong wolf!"

As the "action" shifts to Egypt in Act Two, the audience is treated to the crudest possible reading of hieroglyphics and, later, a sidesplitting dueling-dulcimers scene between Jane and Enid in the parlor. The plot's central conceit—that Edgar will find in Egypt the answer to the demons that haunt his fine English manor—offers more proof that Ludlam, at his best, was an original who could summon the willful iconoclasm of Wilde as well as the absurd setups of Beckett and Ionesco to suit his own stylish purposes.

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