It's actually a little hard to remember when The Mystery of Irma Vep (left), and the work of Charles Ludlam in general, were considered transgressive. Were the 70's and 80's really so long ago? I can remember Ludlam's original Ridiculous Theatre Company - although I didn't catch Vep - and the tacky valor of its trashy horror-movie declarations of gay identity even as the AIDS virus staged a real horror movie all around us (Ludlam would die of the disease only a year after his masterpiece's close). Of course Ludlam wasn't the only one responsible for the mix of campy drag, classic film references, and arch stagecraft that came to define a certain defiantly gay sensibility - but he produced one of its avatars in Vep, which made him a fortune and then went on to a long afterlife on the regional theatre circuit.
Yes, The Mystery of Irma Vep is now a family show, just another piece of outsider-goth pop culture, probably because its faggotry is always kept (slightly) under wraps; unlike the work of Ryan Landry's fabulous Gold Dust Orphans, who carry Ludlam's torch to ever-raunchier heights, Vep never gets too raw, and straight folks generally love it - which is, in a way, a kind of progress, I suppose. Perhaps some even get the show's mocking self-portraiture: the men-women, were-folk and other changelings (i.e., queers) who people its freak show are, in the end, no more genuinely frightening than Lon Chaney or Boris Karloff; Ludlam essentially turns hetero horror at homosexuality on its head. Of course, given a good production, most folks are simply laughing too hard to care about that.
Which is basically the aim of the Lyric Stage's Spiro Veloudos, who has directed the show as a holiday hoot and nothing more - much like November, this theatre's last production, which was supposed to be some kind of conservative-treatise-blah-blah-blah, but in the end was merely a yukfest. Not that there's anything wrong with that - farce has always been a Lyric specialty. And even if this production feels a little, well, denatured of its queerness, I have to admit it delivers laughs, and lots of them.
Still, while the show's talented stars, John Kuntz and Neil A. Casey, have the comic chops to tear through the eight characters, two genders, several species, and umpteen costume changes the show requires, neither has quite the outsized drag presence to put over its only intermittently-sparkling first act. In fact, oddly enough, both are at their best when they're in pants: Kuntz (who's doing characters) brings a morbid dash to the grave-robbing Lord Edgar, and Casey (who's happily goofing) is happiest when he's channeling Peter Lorre as an Egyptian guide. When they're in frocks, alas, their level of comic invention slightly drops. But then since Vep is a pastiche of a pastiche - it's Rebecca mashed with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, along with a werewolf, vampire, and mummy movie (not to mention stretches of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Poe) - perhaps it simply takes a while for its many little comic gears to lock into place. Once that happens, however - the magic moment occurs somewhere around the time Kuntz and Casey descend into the mummy's tomb via the old Indian "rope trick" (above right) - the party does definitely get started, and from then Vep is one long giddy comic romp, which for me hit a high note with its hilarious "dueling dulcimers" smackdown.
Precision and speed are of course the keys to keeping Irma kicking, and luckily the Lyric production is generally a well-oiled machine (its three costume assistants, without whom all those quick changes would be impossible, take a well-earned bow along with the stars). Brynna Bloomfield's set is just about perfect with its secret panels and creepy portraits with eyes that follow you everywhere (I only wished for some hint of the moors beyond the French windows), and costumer Gail Astrid Buckley has found clever ways to tuck whole costumes inside one another. A special nod should go to Dewey Dellay, whose spooky score maps brilliantly to Ludlam's potpourri of sources. I'd never thought of The Mystery of Irma Vep as a cup of Christmas cheer, but it's not too far from a Dickensian ghost story, now is it? So drink up, and never mind if the brew tastes - well, still a little queer . . .