A “TOUR DE FARCE” And John Kuntz and Neil A. Casey are the perfect tourists.
Jane Twisden, the sinister housekeeper of The Mystery of Irma Vep, harbors a mad, secret passion for her employer, the aristocratic and manly Lord Edgar Hillcrest. But if she were to act on it, the result would be an orgy of onanism, since in Charles Ludlam's gender-bent "penny dreadful" set in the 1930s, maid and master are one and the same person — played at the Lyric Stage Company (through December 21) by John Kuntz, who looks in one guise like Jean Marsh with a bad perm and in the other like Dudley Do-Right after a long, liquorous night.
Kuntz is abetted in four-time Obie winner and Ridiculous Theater pioneer Ludlam's 1984 send-up of all things gothic by Neil A. Casey. Arms aflutter and blond wig askew as powder-puff-pink-clad Lady Enid Hillcrest when not dragging an artificial leg as ribald caretaker Nicodemus Underwood, Casey also makes an appearance as a hustling Egyptian pushing lynx urine and Maltese falcons. Under Spiro Veloudos's direction, the two performers play these and other roles in a self-reflexive, far-flung frippery that takes them from the creaking halls of Mandacrest (Lord Edgar's estate on a moor located strangely near Hampstead Heath) to the shores of the Nile as the bwana and his retainers dodge fur-sprouting werewolves, come-hither mummies, the vampire of the title anagram, the ghost of Daphne du Maurier, and flying shards of Shakespeare. Irma Vep is a shameless, sometimes sophomoric amalgam of high (well, one way or the other) and low art that, odd as it seems as a holiday chestnut and as oft as it has appeared on the rialto, may appeal to kids without the ballet gene more than does The Nutcracker.
At its parodist heart, Ludlam's oft-performed spoof is a drag race — run not just by the two performers playing seven roles and doubling in one but by the quick-change team shooting them like bullets back onto the stage after each costume change (through most of which frantic off-stage dialogue ensues, often between two characters played by the same actor). Ludlam — who with partner Everett Quinton made up the original cast — specifies that the players should be of the same sex, though he doesn't say which. And much of the leering melodrama's fun lies in the multiple-casting device. At one point, Casey's Lady Enid and Nicodemus carry on an urgent dialogue with one head or the other — bewigged or bald-pated — popping through the drapes. And when Lady Enid wishes to summon Nicodemus, Lord Edgar points out that this would be impossible — cue the significant eye signals — "for obvious reasons."
Under Veloudos's direction, gifted comic actors Kuntz and Casey prove deft chewers of Brynna Bloomfield's scenery — for two of Ludlam's three acts (performed here with one intermission) the drawing room of the Hillcrests' ancestral home, whose oft-flung-open French doors welcome all manner of fiend and whose walls are decorated with everything from a moose head to African masks. Not only do the bookshelves hide a secret lair, they are also neatly equipped with a convenient cleaver. Ludlam's second act takes Egyptologist Edgar to the subterranean tomb of a fetching mummy that's hilariously accessed via stairs at the side of a theater and a rope trick. Another contributor to the fun is Dewey Dellay's portentous sound design, heavy on musical pulsing and ominous strings.
One could get pretentious and quote Steven Samuels's essay "Charles Ludlam: A Brief Life," which identifies Irma Vep as "a gothic romp on the theme of eternal love." (It is suggested that Lord Edgar and Lady Enid were lovers in a far sandier past life.) But that's pushing it. This innocent (despite more than a few double entendres), still-hilarious relic from the early, campy days of gay theater is more accurately described by director Veloudos as a "tour de farce," one for which he knew he had in the bald, blowzy Casey and the wiry, more intense Kuntz — both moving faster than a weekend excursion to Transylvania via Manderley, Thornfield, and Cairo — the perfect tourists.