Much has changed in this country since 1984. When The Mystery of Irma Vep — a Penny Dreadful debuted, gay jokes and men in drag could still surprise mainstream theatergoers.
In its original run, one of the two actors in Irma Vep was its playwright, Charles Ludlam, a director, writer and actor who had formed the Ridiculous Theatre in 1967. The avant-garde company was known for satirizing cultural norms, parodying literary genres and upending theatrical traditions. Offering some historical context for a recent Irma Vep staging at the Court Theatre of Chicago, Drew Dir (the Court's resident dramaturg) writes that the Ridiculous was a place for Ludlam and his company to "flaunt and celebrate their homosexuality before a general audience."
Ludlam preferred the term "female impersonator" to drag. Dir explains, "Despite Ludlam's literary aspirations, there was a regular contingent of audience members who saw his cross-dressing performances ... as pure drag entertainment."
With or without that drag, though, Irma Vep still works as entertainment. It's a Vaudeville-style silly good time, with room for actors to show off (in a good way). And its sendups of horror-film tropes and 19th-century melodrama hit a few satisfying notes. Yet its main attraction remains the cross-dressing, at least when the female impersonators are Mark Robbins and Ron Megee.
In the production at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, directed by Tom Aulino, the two men portray several female and male roles between them. And because the play calls for only two actors, that means Google Fiber–speed wardrobe changes and character switches.
By now, in 2012, men wearing dresses onstage is old bonnet. Last year's American Heartland Theatre production of The Importance of Being Earnest, for instance, gave us Jim Korinke as Lady Bracknell in a casting not intended as a stunt. What makes this Irma Vep interesting in 2012 is its setting at the old-guard KC Rep and its casting.
This is the first Rep appearance for KC actor and director Megee, who's known primarily for offbeat, often gender-bending roles. On opening night, he drew a guffaw in the first scene simply ambling across the stage as Jane, the maid. Robbins, also a talented longtime KC actor and a director, has been on Rep stages many times, though never before as a woman. They both looked right at home inside a topsy-turvy plot driven by purposely absurd machinations.
Their timing and inflection are perfect. And they need to be — unsophisticated puns and double-entendres dominate Ludlam's script. In a typical exchange, as Lady Enid bends over before a fire, Jane comes up behind her and asks, "How do you like it?" (Jane is, of course, referring to a cup of tea.) "Any man who dresses up as a woman can't be all bad," goes a line in one of the broadly self-referential moments. When Robbins' Lady Enid demands to speak to another of his characters, Megee's Jane replies, "You can't." Asked why, Jane answers, "For obvious reasons."
Bits of Shakespeare mix with snippets of Edgar Allan Poe and sit up alongside mentions of a mummy, a vampire, ghosts and a werewolf. One quip drew a collective groan on opening night. Still, it's fascinating to see the Rep this loose, and I won't forget the quick-change artistry that powers this production and earns the major share of its laughs.
How quick? Megee exits as Jane through one door only to re-emerge elsewhere seconds later as Lord Edgar. Robbins departs as Lady Enid, then reappears almost instantly as Nicodemus the swineherd — carrying Lady Enid. Wardrobe trickery (costume design by Lindsay W. Davis) even enables a character transformation onstage, and the brilliantly choreographed mayhem culminates in Robbins' portrayal of two characters at the same time.
Megee's and Robbins' performances elevate Irma Vep. (I would have liked to see it from backstage, seated near the dressers.) The show may be shallow, but the talent here — onstage and behind it — runs deep.