Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2000
It is REALLY worth the drive to the Weston Playhouse to see Charles Ludlam's "The Mystery of Irma Vep". It is howlingly funny and bawdy and campy and silly, and it is beautifully staged. Now that I am no longer The Press, I was able to join the audience in the standing ovation that the two actors who play all eight roles received.
"Irma Vep" is a spoof of gothic novels, horror movies, and much, much more. Okay, so I was the only Trollope-dork who laughed at the Framley Parsonage joke, but I assure you that if you know anything about English literature you will find something to laugh heartily at in this show - something that you haven't thought of laughing at in a long time - and all this while men cavort about in drag and werewolves and vampires and mummies stalk the stage.
As I mentioned, there are two male actors who play all the roles in "Irma Vep", requiring lightening fast costume changes that are almost as amusing as the play itself. The two actors at Weston are Tom Aulino and Sam Lloyd, Jr. and they do a very fine job indeed. I think that playwright Ludlam, who performed the roles that Lloyd is assaying in this production, would find Lloyd's interpretation extremely virginal and repressed. Ludlam was a true, scenery-chewing, drag diva, but since the audience at Weston probably had never heard of Ludlam until last night, Lloyd's performance was good enough to satisfy.
Weston lucked out in that their new costume designer Lorraine Venberg had recently designed this show for the City Theatre Company of Pittsburgh and brought the production with her to Weston. Does that mean that Aulino and Lloyd got the parts because they fit the costumes? Could be! Her costumes fit them and the show very well. They do not quite fit within set designer Tim Saternow's homage to Edward Gorey set. I cannot tell from his credits whether Saternow is old enough to have seen the recently deceased Gorey's award winning set for the 1977 Broadway production of "Dracula", but I am plenty old enough and I can tell you that his set for "Irma Vep" is a pretty darned good homage. The reason Venberg's fine costumes ruin this effect is that they are not all in black/white/grey with a touch of red. Look closely at the opening scene of the play, when the costume come closest to acheiving that ideal and you will see what I mean.
When I tell people that I drive the 110 mile round trip from Williamstown to Weston to go to the theatre they say "Why??" And I tell them that it is because Weston stages more shows that I want to see; because the theatre is very beautiful and comfortable and it feels like a mini-vacation going there; and because the productions are as good as what I can see at the WTF without the horrible smug superiority that pervades the AMT. This year I will not be seeing any shows at the WTF, but I am going to three at Weston because the WTF is not featuring one play, playwright, or performer that I want to see, and Weston offered me the New England premiere of Sondheim's first musical, a play by Charles Ludlam, and my most favorite show of all, Brecht and Weill's "Threepenny Opera".
Times, they are a-changing when you can see Charles Ludlam performed in summer stock. This is actually the third area production of Ludlam that I am aware of in as many years, and the second of "Irma Vep" - his most performed work. I can remember, as a young woman fascinated with the theatre, the ads in the "Village Voice" for Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company. They usually featured Ludlam in full drag and were placed next to the ads for Divine in "Pink Flamingoes" and Bette Midler appearing at the gay bathhouse. But don't tell the thoroughly preppy mainstream audience that gave "Irma Vep" a standing ovation last night that they were watching a gay drag show.
In this day and age I doubt that many of them would have walked out in a huff if you had told them. They were in Vermont, after all, land of the legal same sex marriage, but it is intriguing that in the past 16 years Ludlam has gone from off-off-Broadway obscurity to mainstream summer stock. I have a feeling he would be turning in his grave.
"The Mystery of Irma Vep" runs through July 15 at the Weston Playhouse in Weston, VT. The show runs two hours and ten minutes . Call the box office at 802-824-5288 or visit the Weston Playhouse website for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2000