“The things one takes seriously are one’s weaknesses.”
— Charles Ludlam
In 1984, a little play opened off-off Broadway titled The Mystery of Irma Vep. Written by playwright Charles Ludlam, it was an eight-character play of both genders, but the cast consisted entirely of Ludlam and his boyfriend. It proved to be very popular and is now one of the most-produced plays in history.
On the surface, Irma Vep is a silly little show, a melodramatic spoof of Victorian ghost stories and horror movie tropes. But Ludlam had a much more serious intent behind the show. It was part of his quest to use paradoxical humor to poke the consciousness of his audiences into a higher realm of awareness.
Irma Vep is the current show at the KC Rep’s Copaken Stage, and to the Rep’s credit, they understand Ludlam’s goal. It’s a crisply elegant production that works in multiple layers.
The plot, for what it’s worth, is about the lord of a gloomy countryside manor who decides to take a new wife after his first one dies. The new lady is attacked by a vampire. There’s also a werewolf on the loose, and an Egyptian mummy that comes back to life. The members of the household try to figure out what’s going on.
The play is famous partly because of the way it must be performed. Part of the licensing agreement for the show is that the two actors must be of the same gender. Cross-dressing is a requirement in order to get permission to produce the play. Not only must two actors play all the roles, but they must be able to do quick costume and character changes — sometimes within seconds. Not every actor has what it takes to do this show. Luckily for the Rep, Kansas City has two actors who are definitely up to the task. Not only are they able to handle the physical demands of the play, but they also understand Ludlam’s underlying goals.
Mark Robbins is no stranger to Rep shows, or to Kansas City stages in general. A consummate actor who isn’t afraid to do what the roles require, Robbins plays the cranky caretaker of the manor, the new lady of the house, and a buxom Egyptian princess. He does an amazing job of making each character quite separate, almost to the point that I had to remind myself that it was the same person playing those roles.
And then there’s Ron Megee, who plays the cranky housekeeper, the lord of the manor, and a phantom woman. I think Megee must be Ludlam’s spiritual son. I don’t know whether Megee consciously knows what he’s doing, or he just intuitively gets it. But he has made his career using cross-dressing comedy as a vehicle to make audiences think about our places in life. There is no other person who could have been cast in this show.
The genius of the script is in Ludlam’s use of the characters to illustrate how we take ourselves too seriously, and then poking holes in it. Megee and Robbins understand that; together, they have absolute control of the evening. They weave the layers of the script together into a brilliant tapestry. As the play progresses towards its bewildering ending, the boundaries between the characters (and the actors) begin to blur — the wall between audience and stage starts to crack. Megee and Robbins deftly handle the increasing chaos, winking at the audience even while keeping their performances in focus.
You don’t have to understand the subtle genius of the script and the performances to see the show. You can still enjoy it for what it is. But you will certainly be missing out on the serious attempt to use comedy to confront your philosophy.
The Mystery of Irma Vep plays at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre through Nov. 18. For tickets, call 816-235-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org.