By Annette Hinkle
This week, Bay Street Theatre opens the second play of its mainstage season, and with plot twists that include tombs, vampires and a missing first wife, it would seem “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is a play worthy of its name.
Written by Charles Ludlam, who first produced the play as an off-off-Broadway offering for his Ridiculous Theatrical Company in Greenwich Village in 1984, the script pays homage to a range of theatrical, literary and cinematic devices and genres that have gone before. Expect a nod to 19th century melodrama and novels, as well as good old fashioned horror films, vaudevillian farce, a few well placed Hitchcock references and even some James Joyce and Ibsen thrown in for good measure.
But if you don’t catch all the inside jokes, don’t take it too hard. Even those well familiar with this play are apt to find new references in the script they previously hadn’t even noticed. The real fun in “The Mystery of Irma Vep” will come from trying to solve the who-dunnit nature of this play.
Irma Vep tells the story of Egyptologist Lord Edgar Hillcrest and his second wife, Lady Enid who reside at their Mandacrest Estate. The demise of Edgar’s first wife, Irma Vep, and son is something of mystery (hence the title) and a werewolf, mummy and a vampire all have a role in what follows — as do the estate’s servants, Jane and Nicodemus.
Tom Aulino and David Greenspan star in this production. And if that seems like far too few names to pull off a play with a sizeable cast of characters, that’s because Aulino and Greenspan will take on eight characters between them, playing both male and female roles through the magic of fast paced backstage choreography and 35 costume changes.
Fortunately, both actors have a good amount of experience with this play.
“We have a compressed rehearsal period, and we’re lucky in a way,” says Greenspan. “Tom and I have both done the play — Tom has done it three times and directed it, and I acted in in it 18 years ago. So we both came to it almost off book.”
There is a quite a bit of backstage wrangling that needs to go on, which Greenspan concedes involves a lot of pulling on and off of wigs and beards. Yet despite the quick change nature, he adds the story is “very clever and deeply felt.”
The multiple roles the actors take on also means they have little down time offstage.
“Once it starts, it does go by quickly,” concedes Aulino. “It’s not like you’re in the green room waiting for your scene. The rehearsal process can also be more intense. You always have to be there.”
“There is a definite choreography set up backstage, you’re walking out and coming back in wearing a completely different outfit,” says Aulino. “Sometimes you’re coming back in at a different place, so you may be running off, depending on time.”
“We’re still working on that,” he adds
It’s not just the multitude of characters, but also the need to switch from one gender to another that poses a challenge for the actors. When asked if also playing female roles complicates the process and requires an added level of attention, Aulino responds, “The female characters are written in such a loving way that it’s like playing any character.”
“I told Ken [Elliott] our director, that for me, playing Edgar is as much a drag performance as playing a female,” adds Aulino. “Edgar has the heightened Edwardian image of a male, which takes a certain amount of style to play.”
Vocalization pitch and styles, are, of course, very different between men and women. But for Aulino, the development of the voices are approached in similar ways regardless of what gender they belong to. He notes these are not decisions made consciously, but rather, those that emerge naturally as he works through the character development process.
And despite its potential to be campy, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” ventures far below the surface. The original production at the Ridiculous Theatre Company starred Ludlam and his partner, Everett Quinton. They both won the 1985 Obie Award for Ensemble Performance and the play also touched on a lot of what was going on in the gay community at the time.
“It’s wonderfully witty and tremendously clever,” says Greenspan. “It’s a love story also that Charles wrote for he and his partner, and a chance for them to be together. It was also written under the shadow of AIDS and there are lines that resonate that way.”
It was a shadow that would soon hit very close to home. Ludlam was diagnosed with AIDS in March 1987 and died just a month later. For Greenspan, all these years later the play remains fundamentally grounded by Ludlum’s intellect, which included his love of literature and theatrical devices.
“He was a tremendous artist,” says Greenspan. “This was the first piece of his I saw. I went back a week later to see it again. I was just entranced.”
Aulino adds that he loves this play because of all the references Ludlam worked into the script.
“My favorite thing is how theatrical it is, Ludlam’s love of theater and all kinds of theatrical devices and contrivances,” he says. “It’s like a love letter to the theater. Even the fact the characters are so heightened, it’s wonderful, it’s fun.”
Among the devices Aulino appreciates in this play is the creative use of lighting and the sounds of off-stage thunder crashes.
“The theatrical moments are heightened and wonderful,” he says. “They’re scary and mysterious to boot.”
While the word melodramatic comes to mind in his description of the play, it’s not one Aulino himself likes to use because it tends to denote a sense of falseness. There is more to this play than that, he notes, and while elements may hearken back to that style, there’s an underlying truth which adds depth.
“It’s a real story,” says Aulino. “Edgar has lost his first wife and there is the mystery of the lost son and wife. He’s remarried and trying to put that behind him. Yet he’s haunted by this past and needs to expel it from his life and in the course of the play, he does.”
“It’s a meaty human drama in the midst of all this craziness,” says Aulino. “That anchors me.”
“It’s a ghost story and a love story,” adds Greenspan. “Plus there are tremendous comedic elements to hold onto. The stakes are high for the characters. It’s for the audience to enjoy … our pleasure is in doing it.”
“The Mystery of Irma Vep” runs through July 28, 2013. Tickets are $59.50 and $69.50. To reserve call the box office at 725-9500 or buy online at www.baystreet.org. Due to the fireworks display in Sag Harbor, the July 6 performance will be at 7 p.m. Bay Street Theatre is on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor.