A Halloween Treat From Lyric

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 BY CLIF’ WARREN

The comic genius of Charles Ludlam, American actor/director/playwright, is flourishing at full throttle in his “Theatre of the Ridiculous” masterpiece, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” at Lyric’s Plaza Theatre. The long awaited Oklahoma premiere of the farce, staged at last by Director Michael Barron, known for his own published playwriting tribute to Ludlam entitled “The Whore of Babylon, ” features superb high camp performances by Jeffrey Meek and Monte Riegel Wheeler, each portraying gender-bending roles with bull’s eye success.

New York Critic Brendan Gill was the first to label Ludlam’s hugely popular farces as “Theatre of the Ridiculous” because they go well past funny bone entertainment to fire off laugh-out-loud satiric salvos, using outlandish characterizations and plot twists performed by only two players pleasurably overacting. The stage sets look familiar but are fancifully overdone, and the costumes and wigs even more so.

An encyclopedic cache of memorable lines stolen from Greek and Roman classics on through Shakespeare, as well as short flashes from current theatre fare, occasionally lace Ludlow’s dialogue, and they quickly gain the attention and the respect of the more experienced theatre-goers. Ludlam knew world theatre history well and allowed his imagination to run wild, putting together his own “Saturday Night Live” multi-level humor while at the same time displaying his gayness loudly and proudly.

For some thirty years, from 1967 through 1997, Ludlam’s “Theatre of the Ridiculous” reigned as the supreme site of camp humor at its Off Broadway venue, well after Ludlam died of AIDS in 1987. Now his farces are performed throughout the world, and in the last 20 years many regional theatres throughout the U. S. have taken up the Ludlam banner.

Lyric’s “Irma Vep” satirizes Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” but the mansion of the novel and film is no longer called “Manderly” but “Mandacrest.” The haunted widower is no longer Maxim de Winter but Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist, who is affected by the death of his first wife, Irma Vep. Irma Vep is also obsessively adored by the housekeeper, now called Jane Twisden, who has the same traits as the memorable Judith Anderson, who portrayed the role in the film version of the story.

The new mistress of Mandacrest is not a dewy-eyed bride as in the novel and film, but a former stage actress, Lady Enid, who busies about in Godey’s “Lady Book” costumes, made of layers of elaborate fabric. She brightens and animates at the sound of the “Tara Theme” from the film of “Gone With The Wind.” Lady Enid is sure Jane hates her and quite unsure of Lord Edgar’s love.

Quite necessary to the multi-layered yet oddly familiar plot is the swineherd, Nicodemus, who, though clearly an underling and far too untidy, chases after Jane Twisden, and he harbors his own special scenario about the death of Irma Vep.

After Lady Enid is attacked by a vampire on a stormy night amid lightning strikes and wolf howls, Lord Edgar decides to return to Egypt to seek out several answers, not only the event of the vampire, but also for the mystery of the death of Irma and their son, Victor II, named after a Wolf, Victor I, as well as the appearance of a ghostly mummy.

In Act II, Lord Edgar returns with the sarcophagus and places the huge wood box in the large parlor room beside the mantel. He then immediately begins a search for the werewolf who may have killed Irma and his son.

Even more surprises await her when Lady Enid, in her search for Irma’s jewels, discovers behind a secret movable door. Irma herself is there locked in a cell. And so the revelations go on—until the ultimate solution yields the largest surprise of the evening, while werewolves abound.

Split-second costume and character changes throughout “The Mystery of Irma Vep” continually illustrate how competent and quickly adaptable actors Jeffrey Meek and Monte Riegel Wheeler are.

The action and the humor proceed non-stop.

Scenic design by Jon Young, along with Art Whaley’s mood lightning and Jeffrey Sherwood’s eerie sounds—from wolf calls and lightning shocks to squeaks and clonks—create an all-pervasive Gothic Victorian atmosphere behind which Director Barron deftly controls it all.

“The Mystery of Irma Vep” is an especially enjoyable Halloween treat and a special part of a theatre education.

Performances continue through Oct. 27 at 7:30 p. m. on Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 pm. on Fridays, and 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturdays.

 

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