The Mystery of Irma Vep

Also: Three Tall Women.

The Mystery of Irma Vep

Intiman Theatre; ends Sun., May 22

Playwright Charles Ludlam's supreme nonsense opens with thunder and lightning, a scream, and an arched brow from a man wearing a maid's uniform. If, somehow, this doesn't clue you into what the rest of the evening will offer, I feel it my duty to inform you that the late, great Ludlam was the most deliciously overripe of homosexuals, that the aforementioned brow hardly ever descends, and that both of the men in the two-person cast will be donning ladies' garments. Director Jonathan Moscone's production, meanwhile, is all dressed up but only occasionally has places to go—which means you'll enjoy yourself but won't quite reach the heights of the play's ecstasies.

Irma Vep is comedy straight from the heart and soul of the brilliant Ludlam, founder of New York's famed Ridiculous Theatre and an artist whose commitment to expanding the possibilities of both camp and the gender politics that fuel it served as an invaluable bridge from Molière's spoofery to the screwball madness of old movies to the comic queer sensibility that we take for granted today. The show is both a kick in the pants and pat on the back to everything pop aesthetes like Ludlam—a dying breed, alas—carried around in their psyches on a daily basis: a haughty familiarity with the Bard, an overdose of gothic excess, an encyclopedic embrace of Hollywood kitsch, and a lascivious literary and theatrical sense of mischief.

Actors Mark Anders and Richard Ruiz here play the physical manifestations of those obsessions, characters stuck on an English estate called Mandercrest. The onetime mistress of the house, Lady Irma, has, to put it mildly, left things in disarray since her death. Her haunted, grieving husband Edgar Hillcrest (Anders) has married Enid (Ruiz), a skittish actress, which disgusts the manor's alarmingly severe housekeeper, Jane Twisden (Anders), who's busy trying to shake off the drooling advances of groundskeeper Nicodemus Underwood (Ruiz). You can see how tangled this is already becoming—and that's without mentioning Lady Irma's once-domesticated wolf, who apparently tore the throat of Irma's newborn, then fled into the wilds of the moor, where, it seems, he's got competition from the local werewolf. If I tell you that Act II finds Edgar in Egypt, where a revived mummy princess tempts him with a beckoning, "Tut-can-come-in," I'll assume we're all finally on the same page.

Ludlam could toss off a naughty Wildean epigram when he wanted to ("Virginity is a balloon in the carnival of life," Jane tells Enid, who's mourning her loss of innocence. "It vanishes with the first prick") but Irma Vep is more about packing in a wild array of referential conventions and contrivances without flinching from the fallout. Jane Eyre, old Universal horror flicks, Shakespearean soliloquy, melodramatic bodice-ripping—they're all here. The play plunges into absurdity and encourages those involved to do the same, to take every movement to its ridiculous extreme. And Anders and Ruiz are a good match when they're relying simply on the text itself, as when Edgar and Enid are able to reach orgasm simply by crossing the room toward one another and portentously repeating each other's names ("Edgar." "Enid." "Edgar?" "Enid?" "Edgar!" "Enid!").

Without Ludlam's help, however, the players fall into decidedly different camps, so to speak. Anders is goofy and jovial; a pleasant guy in a series of funny costumes. He's having a good time riffing on Rebecca as the supposedly straight-laced Jane, but he doesn't make more of his personas than what's on paper—which, again, will still give you a laugh, yet won't reduce you to the grateful goo Ludlam would so have loved. Big, round, revved-up Ruiz, on the other hand, is ready to sweat (which he does) to get every open moment filled with a flourish, whether it works or not; to see him flouncing about in an evening gown acting gamine and girlish is to know the man has no shame. A bit in which he plays a scene to himself ("Sometimes I feel that Nicodemus and I are the same person," Enid coos) is a genuine hoot.

Moscone's direction asks a lot of the hardworking pair, though not enough. His show wants too hard to please everyone, and lacks the tingly sense of dumb, dangerous play that good drag can provide. It's loping and silly where it should be fast and gay.

But loping and silly, I suppose, are nothing to sniff at. There are so few reasons to laugh at this point in our history that I can't in good conscience tell you not to go and have a good time. These are dark days, and the chance to watch two men in dresses re-enact the banjo duel from Deliverance somehow makes things seem a little brighter. STEVE WIECKING

Three Tall Women

Seattle Public Theater; ends Sun., May 22

The handbill for SPT's stunning production of Edward Albee's play is so misleading it might be a ruse. It depicts, in silky blue tones, a silhouetted mother and daughter romping on the wet sands of an ethereal beach while a godlike face beams down, a complex look of concern and bewildered love slackening her matronly features. "How we live, how we love, what we settle for and how we die," reads the small, silky blue print. Right: how exactly. This piece of classic theater is a wicked, viciously hilarious, immaculately structured and, ultimately, soul-shattering experience. Let it, and it'll take the tall top of your skull off.

The story is as simple as an imperfect life lived. Part Death of Ivan Illych and part Bergman's Persona, yet entirely and unmistakably an Albee work, Three Tall Women is a raw-nerved meditation on the regret, denial, compromise, and niggling joys one faces looking backward from death's door. Not tragedy, not melodrama, not bitter comedy nor amplified symbolism vetting the human condition—this is just life. And it hurts.

It's staged well by SPT's artistic director, Shana Bestock but, more importantly, so exquisitely acted by its principals that it achieves moments of breathtaking artistry. A triptych of unnamed characters occupies a parlor that has become a sick room. Betty Campbell portrays a dying matriarch in a performance that easily rivals the wizened, sharp-witted roles of Katharine Hepburn's later work; she is riveting as a misanthropic but elegant bag of bones drifting in and out of a fascinating dementia, spewing out whole episodes of her life. Erin Day, who plays her caretaker, gives off an air of exhausted understanding for her charge. These two women, who bicker and prod each other, share a deep understanding, a fact revealed in Act II's stunning reversal.

The foil, the wedge between this pair, is Tracy Repep, a lawyer's assistant on hand to make sense of the dying woman's muddled finances and also to register horror and sadistic amusement at Campbell's seemingly brutal and atavistic attitudes. In Repep's character, we witness all the heartbreaking denial of aging, the longing for a happy future, the yen for rosy love: "I will never become you," she implores.

Alas, with the old lady lying victim of a stroke, the three become the same woman: Repep at age 26, Day at 52, and Campbell at 91 (or 92: "Such vanity over one year!"). What follows is a round-robin of expectations foiled and truths revealed, as each one articulates the transformative moments of a life. Albee's language here soars, poetic yet real, and each actor in turn has her moment of epiphany—or anti-epiphany, depending on the deathbed perspective you favor. The only false note occurs right at the end, in an unfortunate decision that has the actors facing up in line to address the audience when they could just as well have continued in hermetic splendor, informing themselves how they are, what they will be, and why they cannot be anything else.

But this is small potatoes. What's certain is that this is theater of the highest order, doing precisely what it should do: force you to identify with what has passed—or to try not to. RICHARD MORIN

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